With the current global COVID-19 pandemic, masses of workers are either being forced to isolate themselves in their homes or encouraged to work from home by concerned bosses. This practice has been widely regarded as a good move, showing a level of compassion for the concerns of the working population and assisting the efforts of governments around the world to restrict the unnecessary transmission of disease. However, even in the current digital age and with having flexible work on the agenda during the last decade, the reality is that many organizations are ill-prepared for an entirely remote workforce, while CEOs may find it difficult to adapt their working styles. After all, the number of truly remote companies remains tiny, so many CEOs are finding themselves in a position in which they have to run their business without any face-to-face interaction, which can be a tough adjustment to make.
Naturally, not everyone can work from home – emergency medical technicians (EMTs), pilots, and construction workers, to name just a few. So, first, foremost, and perhaps most obviously, CEOs need to evaluate the capacity of their employees to work remotely. Once established, it’s important to make sure several things are in place before staff are sent home to work.
Define clear ways of working
For organizations that don’t have a remote working policy in place, now’s the time to get one sorted, even if it’s just a temporary measure. For companies that do, it is the responsibility of the senior leadership team to make sure it’s up-to-date to reflect the current obstacles remote workers might face in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is vital that employees understand what rules, limits and restrictions are associated with working remotely, especially if it’s being forced upon them. This can include highlighting the company’s computer misuse policy, how to run internal meetings from outside the office, the legal rights employers have regarding working hours, and how success will be measured within different teams in light of any obstacles that may hinder usual business practices.
Some of these obstacles may include unthought of issues like loneliness. Businesses that promote remote working cultures find that team cohesion often suffers as a result of a lack of regular communication. It is commonly observed that a working structure that promotes transparency and open communication is key to the success of any business and is often exemplified in Scandinavian culture. Frequently, this is bolstered by working in one, single office space but impresses upon employees a culture that transcends the office to any remote working environment. For those that are forced to work from home, implementing policies that make an effort to promote personal wellbeing and team cohesion will be the most successful ones.
Have the right tools
The push for companies to move their tech infrastructure into the 21st century isn’t a new one and has been a consistent bugbear for many businesses over the past decade. However, the old saying “You need to spend money to make money” has never been more true. Many organizations are falling by the wayside when it comes to keeping equipment and software up-to-date. CEOs who have invested in providing company laptops and cloud-based software such as G Suite or Office 365 will be in a much better position than those relying on desktop infrastructures.
As an example, the slow uptake of video conferencing and presentation software over the past decade has meant that many organizations have been left unprepared. Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy in the U.K., once said: “Part of what went wrong is that it was sold as the poor man’s alternative to air travel, not the rich man’s phone call.” We are now in an age where these technologies are widely available and readily accepted, and it is more important than ever to make sure everyone is heard when working remotely. This is a difficult enough concept when everyone is in the same room, but far more difficult when a team is dispersed. Those organizations that are set up to use virtual meeting and presentation software, enabling employees to participate and remain engaged while supporting data-driven decisions, will feel the sting far less than those that don’t.
Also know that innovation often comes from other parts of the organization than the top, so be open and listen to tools and ways of working that come from the younger generations. There are millions of tools out there and an RFQ and clear requirements might not be the best way forward to choose the right tool for you, so maybe just ask employees what software they prefer.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that while company networks might be more secure than average, home and public networks are not. As such, providing employees with virtual private network (VPN) software is paramount when trying to keep any connection into the company network secure.
Remote working, for all its plus points, does have some pitfalls. Even the most prepared companies will experience issues they hadn’t foreseen. Many organizations, from small businesses to huge enterprises have reported that many of their systems haven’t been able to cope with the sudden increase of people remotely accessing the network. While this is a very modern-day problem, it is also something that can be resolved if needs must.
There are other, less technical drawbacks to working remotely. Naturally, when people are trapped behind a screen, it makes it far more difficult to interact with colleagues, some of whom are in teams that are used to collaborating regularly throughout a given day. Emails are only so useful when there are multiple people in a thread, so investing in an instant messaging software such as Slack or Microsoft Teams will be beneficial for workforce productivity when the majority of employees are working from disparate locations.
Provide training and be flexible
While the millennial and Gen-Z generations are evolutionarily prepared to use any technology that might be thrown at them, for many it takes time to get used to new equipment and software. Some concerns have been raised regarding how older and/or, less tech-savvy employees will cope without being able to ask colleagues or IT support for help.
A lot of people are happy to be left to their own devices, but many are concerned about not having the usual “over the shoulder” support that they’re used to. To combat this, business leaders need to provide as much training as possible to staff in order to best prepare them for the world of remote working, whether this is in software and hardware, or specific management training. The good news is, a lot of this can take place online and can be undertaken with very short notice.
As with everything new, teething problems are likely. However, being patient and facing each problem head-on is the key to enabling a successful remote working culture, even if it is being implemented under added external pressure. Those running a remote business have to accept that some things will be out of sight, but that doesn’t mean they can be out of mind. Ensuring that workers feel both comfortable and supported during a transition to the remote working culture is key to successful implementation. This could include providing guidance on how to improve wellbeing while isolated, including regular exercise, mindfulness, and meditation.
Although many organizations are more than equipped for a situation in which remote working is mandatory, many still are not. According to predictions in Upwork’s third annual Future Workforce Report, by 2028 73% of all teams across the U.S. will have remote workers. And by the same year, freelancers, temporary and agency workers are expected to compose 24% of the workforce. The remote working trend isn’t slowing down and the current COVID-19 pandemic is forcing businesses that were previously lacking in this area to reassess their infrastructures. Ultimately, remote working doesn’t have to be a negative side-effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, but businesses need to be prepared to support their workforces in order to make the sudden upheaval a more pleasant experience.