The COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers and employees to adapt overnight to new work conditions and schedules, as states enacted stay-at-home orders and companies tried to keep their employees safe and healthy.
How were remote work and alternative work schedules implemented in business aviation? What lessons can managers and workers share, and how might these impact the future of work in the industry?
Tim Sullivan, director of operations and COO of Manassas, VA-based Chantilly Air, said, “It’s a balance between working with the employee and doing the duties and functions we need as a company.”
“Remote working provides benefits for both Duncan Aviation and our team members,” said President Jeff Lake. “Remote work can improve the quality of work/life balance during this pandemic. It can also improve employee retention and eliminate any need for a leave of absence.”
Challenges of Remote Work
Emily White, co-chair of the NBAA Schedulers and Dispatchers Committee and director of sales at Avianis, a subsidiary of Wheels Up, said the majority of her company’s team members were already working remotely prior to the pandemic. Other parts of the Wheels Up organization had little or no experience with working from home. For White’s group, the new challenge was creating new habits and communicating frequently with other team members.
Duncan Aviation, where approximately 25% of employees are currently working at home at least part-time, remote workers are encouraged to set up workstations in dedicated locations at home and follow a routine of regular work hours and breaks.
Successful remote work relies heavily on virtual meeting and document-sharing platforms. White recommends holding daily team meetings, which hold people accountable and enable team members to seek assistance from others.
However, this reliance on technology can pose challenges. Sullivan found bandwidth to be a problem – both for some employees at their homes and for employees at the office trying to conduct virtual meetings with remote workers. Having enough bandwidth is especially challenging when multiple family members are working remotely or doing schoolwork at home.
In addition, parents who are trying to ensure their children stay engaged with remote learning find it difficult to work during traditional business hours. Managers found it helpful to allow flexible work schedules, whenever possible. For some employees, a split workday – say, an early morning start with a break midday to help children complete schoolwork, with more work time after dinner – works well and results in higher productivity.
“Remote work can improve the quality of work/life balance during this pandemic. It can also improve employee retention and eliminate any need for a leave of absence.”
Jeff Lake President, Duncan Aviation
Most managers reported a surprising challenge: employees are working too many hours. White encourages her team to block out time for lunch or to take a walk. She also says it’s important to close the office door at the end of the day. Sullivan concurs.
“It’s actually a challenge to get people to stop working when they’re working remotely,” said Sullivan. “I think people underestimate how draining working from home can be. An eight- or nine-hour day at home is not the same as an eight- or nine-hour day in the office, and we don’t want people to burn out. We had to set some boundaries.”
“For the most part, this [remote work] has worked well,” said Lake, “and many team members enjoy the freedom while maintaining engagement and productivity. Setting boundaries and touching base at least weekly have proven to be essential to prevent emotional separation between home and office.”
Despite these challenges, White believes that working remotely during the COVID crisis has given her team an opportunity to better balance work among team members, increasing overall company productivity.
Alternative Work Schedules
Some remote working experiences have had mixed results, and remote work simply isn’t possible for some job functions.
Sullivan saw some members of his team struggle with remote interaction, finding it difficult to retain the company spirit and traditional camaraderie. As a result, Chantilly Air implemented alternative work schedules in which at least one person from each department was in the office every weekday. Employees working in the office are monitored for coronavirus symptoms, including temperature checks every day, and masks are required when workers are not able to socially distance.
Similarly, some maintenance organizations have implemented staggered work schedules to minimize the number of people working together. Not only does this help with social distancing, but if an employee does get sick, the number of exposed employees is lower and contact tracing is easier. However, when establishing staggered maintenance shifts, managers need to avoid having technicians or others working alone on high-risk tasks.
“Duncan Aviation has always had team members working alternate shifts to ensure that aircraft projects are completed with the least amount of downtime for operators,” said Lake. “Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, though, we have shifted even more team members to alternate shifts. The scheduling is dependent on work tasks and the expertise of each team member, so it is a complicated process that varies by department and service area. This shift, however, has allowed us to have fewer team members working in hangars and shops at the same time, allowing for better social distancing and less potential exposure.”
Other organizations are using “work pods” – assigning small groups of people to work together. If one employee in a pod gets sick, the exposure is likely limited to that pod, and contact tracing is relatively simple.
While Duncan Aviation and other organizations that require employees to be in one space also are educating their employees on proper handwashing technique, the need to wear masks or face coverings, and social distancing requirements.
Looking to the Future
There could be long-term benefits in the lessons managers have learned during the COVID-19 crisis, especially regarding remote-work practices in business aviation, which could benefit schedulers, dispatchers, charter salespersons and those with similar positions.
“There is so much talent in this industry, and I hope managers realize [some of] these jobs can be done anywhere,” said White. “The talent doesn’t have to live in your location.”
Some positions that might benefit the most from remote work arrangements are those on the lower end of the pay scale. Remote work could allow such employees to live in areas with a lower cost of living, while still being talented assets for their companies.
More flexible work conditions, including alternative shifts and schedules, might also make business aviation a more attractive career choice for employees with children, aging parents or other family commitments.
While the duration of the pandemic and its full impact on business aviation is yet to be determined, the management lessons learned from remote work, flexible hours and alternative schedules will likely benefit the industry for years to come, potentially opening it to a whole new set of qualified workers, creating efficiencies and even improving employee retention.