Preparing employees for working remotely in times of crisis
9 March, 2020 | by
Working from home – but not by choice
Flexible working may once have been considered a perk but the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in what some have labelled the world’s biggest work from home experiment, forcing thousands of employees to work remotely if their job allows for it. Immediately after the outbreak, an estimated 60 million Chinese workers were placed under full or partial lockdown. As COVID-19 spread, organisations across South East Asia, then Italy and the USA implemented emergency remote working arrangements. Some employees are allowed into the office on roster, while others are being asked to work from home until further notice. Companies including Twitter, Google, Amazon and Apple have restricted employee travel and requested people stay at home where possible.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, is a proponent of remote working and optimistic about the shift.
This may be simple for a tech company with a young workforce, equipped with modern laptops and robust cloud infrastructure. But many organisations have been caught off guard. They have no business continuity plan for a suddenly distributed workforce. Most production lines can’t function without human labour and, as a result, China’s manufacturing production has fallen to record lows. Global supply chains have been seriously impacted and, with demand waning, the global economy is slowing, possibly towards a recession.
For security reasons, many jobs can’t be easily shifted to a remote arrangement. Military and banking are two obvious areas. Nevertheless, COVID-19 is going to trigger experiments that will test human, technological and organisational resilience and ingenuity.
Remote working to maintain productivity
Countries like Singapore are less vulnerable than many others. Flexible working arrangements are commonplace and have made it possible for top talent to deliberately balance their careers with lifestyle. Companies like Dell are also prepared, having initiated workplace transformation programs back in 2009.
Organisations of the future will be looking at these examples of flexible working success and reimagining business continuity. What happens in a future where COVID-19 is but one of many threats, ranging from virus to terror, climate to political unrest? Could your organisation continue operations if the office was shut down? Is your technology infrastructure capable of handling the shift? Can your managers lead remotely? Perhaps, most importantly, are employees equipped to deal with the challenges of being physically isolated, potentially for long periods of time?
Remote working is not a new idea
Opportunities for remote working have increased dramatically since the advent of the internet. Those with specific skills can live productive – even nomadic – lives equipped with just a laptop and wi-fi.
Working from the bedroom (or beach) is a dream for many but the reality may present a shock. Some people thrive in their own space, operating without the distractions inherent in the modern, open-plan office. A Chinese remote working study showed that employees were 13% more productive at home, mainly due to the quieter environment. As you may expect, they also requested less sick days. Think about our ancestors: we evolved hunting and gathering in small, close-knit groups. In the evenings the tribe would gather and tell stories around the fire, then rest and repeat at sunrise. Public transport, open-plan offices and densely populated cities are not our natural environment. A home in the suburbs might not be such a bad place to work after all.
In reality, however, most home environments are not optimised for serious productivity. There may be family members present during the day or no suitable area available for work. The dining room table is fine for the occasional email but video conferencing won’t work if there are toddlers crying in the background. The boundaries between work and home can easily blur and many employees will find themselves working late, suffering disrupted sleep routines, experiencing resentment from partners and kids, and feeling lonely.
Companies need to lead the way
Governments are understandably focused on the medical implications of a pandemic like COVID-19. Organisations will need to lead the way in terms of securing productivity and supporting the livelihood of those in their care during turbulent times.
McKinsey’s report, COVID-19: Implications for business, states, “Protect your employees. The COVID-19 crisis has been emotionally challenging for many people, changing day-to-day life in unprecedented ways. For companies, business as usual is not an option. They can start by drawing up and executing a plan to support employees that is consistent with the most conservative guidelines that might apply and has trigger points for policy changes. Some companies are actively benchmarking their efforts against others to determine the right policies and levels of support for their people. Leaders must communicate with employees with the right level of specificity and frequency.”
At Springfox, we work with organisations around the globe to provide assessment and training – often delivered digitally – that equips individuals with action plans to improve their resilience and leaders with insights on how best to look after their people in times of crisis. Reporting on 60 factors of resilience we believe the future lies in providing targeted, relevant support, at the right time, wherever employees might be.
As such, we have prepared the following guide to help organisations equip their teams and leaders for success.
10 Tips for Remote Working Success
1. Set up a dedicated workspace
Employers are probably aware that most employees work from home even if they have not signed a flexible working arrangement. A report by Fortune reveals that 68% of people check work email before 8 am, 50% check it while in bed, 57% check on family outings, and 38% regularly check at the dinner table.
If we expect employees to be productive in the home environment it is necessary for them to create boundaries, both physical and time. Most organisations will be unable to ship standing desks to every staff member’s home but some simple tips will improve safety and wellbeing.
A clear desk and dedicated workspace improves focus and productivity.
Considering that staff will primarily be using laptops it is important that they learn optimal posture and take regular breaks. If budgets allow, companies may choose to ship a laptop stand plus external keyboard and mouse to each employee who is working from home.
To assist with focus in a potentially noisy environment, employees might choose to wear noise-cancelling headphones. For those in sales roles where client interaction will be required it is worthwhile investing in quality USB headsets that transmit and receive clear sound.
Encourage employees to blur their background if necessary during video calls (Skype has a setting for this) and to use an appropriate lighting source if client communication is necessary. A small, clip-on LED ring light can provide excellent illumination for a few dollars.
2. Encourage communication
Many employees enjoy the social aspect of work. Being suddenly isolated can result in feelings of loneliness. Motivation may decrease.
Use group conversations to stimulate formal and informal communication. Consider a “virtual watercooler” where employees can discuss a range of topics. Create a thread called “Working from Home” so people can share anecdotes, tips and success stories.
Encourage video calls whenever possible. Being able to view faces will reduce ambiguity and build a sense of connection. Equip employees with some guidelines around video call best practice, especially those who may be new to the technology.
For calls with large groups, nominate a conversation facilitator who ensures each person has an opportunity to contribute. Some people may interrupt or speak out of turn so create some protocols for group call etiquette.
Keep virtual meetings short. People will often multitask (that’s why having cameras on is useful) and they’ll almost certainly zone out of anything beyond an hour. Allow rest breaks for meetings longer than an hour.
Don’t see COVID-19 as an excuse to roll out more systems and software. Starting a Slack board may seem cool but how distracted are your employees already? Can you make use of existing tools, like Yammer, Skype, Hangouts or Sharepoint?
Encourage employees to have virtual coffee breaks where they can openly discuss non-work topics. Using technology effectively can help maintain and even build company culture. It will be integral to human success in a physically disconnected future.
3. Be empathetic
Employees will be working from the sanctuary of their home space and this brings with it all kinds of challenges, from the White Tennis Shoe Syndrome (finding any distraction more appealing than the current task) to the lure of the fridge, to kids who also happen to be locked down at home.
While running remote working experiments you’ll connect with employees who’ve just woken up after a rough night. You’ll hear screaming in the background. Some people will be hyper-productive (take note) and some will be wallowing in procrastination and doubt. Managers are not immune to this – they may feel the pressure more than most.
Everyone responds differently to challenge so ask people how they’re doing and show them that you care. Emphasise the importance of the organisational mission and how much their contribution counts towards the greater goals.
Be really clear about performance objectives but allow space for adaptation to the new arrangement.
4. Create a culture of recognition
High-recognition companies have 31% lower voluntary turnover than companies with poor recognition cultures. Use remote working as a way to encourage recognition, both peer-to-peer and from leaders.
A simple first step is saying thank you. The next step is public recognition. When teams are distributed geographically they miss the small wins – things that went well but don’t deserve a group email. Take the opportunity to recognise small wins by broadcasting daily or weekly group updates that are dedicated to good news, gratitude and success stories.
5. Hold virtual training sessions
When group workshops and conferences are impossible due to the risk of infection, employee training does not need to stop. Most training companies can offer webinar versions of their content, enabling employees to dial in remotely.
Tools like Zoom enable video meetings and webinars, with advanced functionality like chat and breakout rooms for one-on-one discussions. Zoom’s share price increased by 67% in 2020 with Zoom switching to digital-only format.
Virtual summits and training sessions make sense, both environmentally and in terms of limiting the spread of viruses. They may not be quite as fun as a face-to-face event but they can certainly still be effective.
Springfox offers introductory webinars and deep-dives into specific areas including bounce, sleep, focus, emotional intelligence and high performance.
6. Encourage transparency
In times of crisis, transparency builds trust. From a team productivity perspective, shared task lists can help groups collaborate more efficiently. Tools like Trello (free), JIRA (paid) and Microsoft Planner (included with Office 365) enable the quick creation of boards (projects), tasks and delegation.
Highly visual, shared boards become the central repository of work in progress and are much easier to manage than email. Leaders can quickly identify which employees need additional support, based on the number of tasks assigned and forthcoming deadlines.
Consider letting teams explore agile ways of working. You may discover an emergent workflow that forms the basis for future business continuity planning.
From the perspective of company communications, it is important that leaders maintain contact and share important updates as swiftly as possible. Crisis situations are an opportunity to strengthen relationships and practice real-time resilience. Transparent and authentic communication creates a foundation of workplace trust.
7. Offer virtual well-being training
Employees will take time to adapt to a completely new way of working. Some will take advantage of the extra time and go for walks or attend group fitness classes. Others may lack the motivation to get out of their pyjamas.
Working from home is an opportunity to save money and improve diet by preparing meals at home. Encourage employees to move throughout the day and provide them with resources to encourage mindfulness and calm. Promote healthy sleep habits and discourage working late.
Keep training sessions short and focused. Encourage the use of self-assessment tools to build personal insight.
8. Establish daily rhythm
The remote working experiment is an opportunity to develop high-performance habits, both individually and as a team. How about reserving the first 90 minutes in everyone’s diary for Flow State – the most important task/s for the day. After this, we share a collective break (meet at the virtual watercooler / Slack), then batch process emails and make video calls.
Some might schedule a second “flow zone” for the afternoon, followed by a break and time for recovery.
Bear in mind that some people will have kids arriving home in the afternoon, so they will compensate by working late. Be empathetic and discourage extremely late nights and weekends online. Leaders will need to model these behaviours because remote-working culture starts from the top.
9. Mental health check-ins
Whether conducted by leaders, peers or internal wellbeing ambassadors it is worthwhile scheduling mental health check-ins to make sure everyone is coping with the change to remote working.
Many organisations choose to focus on cultivating mental wellbeing – or mental fitness. In this context, the check-in becomes an opportunity for coaching and support.
Springfox's downward spiral provides a clear framework to help leaders and employees describe and sustain their mental fitness.
10. Train leaders to identify risks
The remote working experiment is fraught with risk. Some areas to consider include:
- Conducting flexible work risk assessments and defining remote work policies. Duncan Cotterill have produced an excellent guide.
- Employee well-being – sleep, fitness, relaxation, balancing home pressures.
- Expenses – is an allowance available for working in cafes or for use of the home internet connection, especially if video calling is required?
- Security – does the employee live with flatmates or others who can gain unauthorised access to company information. What security protocols can be established?
- Mental health – be aware of behaviours that signal resilience failure.
- Employee engagement – how can leaders maintain employee morale.
Is your company working flexibly as a result of COVID-19? Please email email@example.com with tips, success stories, feedback or if you need assistance.
Resilience training for remote workers
Springfox is offering the Resilience App to help employees stay safe, well and effective during challenging times.
This digital program is available in English, French, Dutch and German.