The COVID-19 emergency and social distancing measures are forcing businesses worldwide to shift to remote work. This is a serious challenge for many sectors and companies, especially those that were not used to it before, which now have to rush to stay afloat. If you are a manager or a leader, you may be struggling to find solutions to keep good levels of collaboration, communication, and productivity when everyone is working from home during the quarantine.
Picture credit: David L. Ryan—Boston Globe/Getty Images
Coronavirus aside, remote work has been on the rise (with a whopping 173% increase since 2005 in the U.S.) and some companies already work 100% remotely. Is this the new reality of work or only a temporary necessity? Regardless of your predictions for how long this crisis will take, it is handy to have some tips on how businesses can make the most out of remote work and effectively manage at a distance.
These tips can also be precious if you are starting to work with freelancers, as this type of work relationship has a lot in common with managing remote teams and workers. With the uncertainty that looms ahead, and because you will have grown used to remote work, you may even consider outsourcing some projects in the near future: we have an article about working with freelancers coming soon.
Start from the mindset: see this forced shift as an opportunity to drive change and strengthen collaborative ties, not as something ruining your business plans. Despite the uncertainty and the many difficulties ahead, there is a silver lining: your company can overcome inertia. In fact, firms, especially if large, tend to be very slow and even resistant to change: here’s a push that can remove those old routines and policies that actually hindered a lot of innovation.
Plus, some good news for your employees: research found that working from home can lead to higher satisfaction (American Psychological Association) and increased well-being, not to mention reduced stress from commuting.
Now that you are feeling all positive, let’s get down to some practical tips for businesses to make the most out of remote work during the quarantine.
Let’s begin with the technology. If you are not already making extensive use of sharing and collaboration tools (such as Microsoft Suite, Google Suite, Slack, Zoom, Skype), ensure everyone in the organization has access to, and knows how to use the platform chosen by the company. Some of these are even offering premium subscriptions for free during the Coronavirus emergency.
It is very important that less tech-savvy workers can find support, so be available for clarifications or make sure they know whom to ask in case they need help. Also let them know about alternative, more classic ways to get in touch with you, such as phone calls or text messages.
Note that giving access to company data requires some security checks, for example a strong password policy (maybe setting inactivity timeouts), managing access to the firm’s internal network (VPN), limiting the ability to store, download or copy data, and enforcing the same endpoint security policy for antimalware, firewalls, etc. as with an organization-managed device. You can read about security measures in detail in this post.
Just like in the office, good communication is key for smooth work relationships and for reaching goals. However, when face-to-face meetings, coffee machine chats, and simply walking to someone’s desk are not options, maintaining effective communication can be more challenging and require more planning.
As a general tip, do not worry about communicating too much and do not leave your employees guess or make assumptions about the right way to go. Especially at the beginning, keep them frequently updated about progress with projects and other matters even if they may not be directly related to their tasks. Remember, they cannot get the news in the break room and working from home can make people feel lonely and disconnected.
Prefer chats and written communication over meetings (keep those only for important matters). Written communication can save many misunderstandings and a lot of time, while getting everyone ready for an online meeting may be very time consuming and not always effective, especially with a not too digitally-skilled workforce. However, let everyone know you are always available for a call and tell them how and when they can reach you.
Schedule regular communication with and among workers and teams. It is really important to keep connected and make them feel connected! Since they are missing the face-to-face social interaction in the office, always start meetings (with or without video) by checking how everyone is doing and let them exchange a few words about their lives before jumping to the agenda. This is especially important amid the Coronavirus emergency.
It is easy to lose motivation when feeling lonely or without some healthy peer pressure not to check your Facebook or play Solitary. Don’t exaggerate, though. Checking on them too often may make your employees feel you are controlling them, even if your intention is just showing you are there to help. It is a tricky balance that requires good communication skills and depends on your organizational culture (more on that later).
Linked to this, how do you know when everyone is working, how long it should take them to answer your texts, or how to exactly measure their work? It is crucial to set clear expectations on schedules, deliverables, and response time. We recommend to focus on results and not on work time/hours, but it may be useful to have everyone make clear when they are working and available (e.g. a text when starting the day and when on a break). This way you can have a better overview without having to personally check on everyone. If you think it is useful and better for coordination, schedule regular check-ins in which your employees can update you about their progress and discuss other matters.
Remember to be flexible: some night-owls may finally find their maximum motivation working unusual hours, while some may just need to experiment with work times. Be ready to see some drops in productivity, at least initially: people need time to adjust to life in quarantine on top of the new work environment. Moreover, many children will be home from school, so that parents may need to juggle a bit.
See how a kid crashed a BBC live interview here.
Now more than ever, leaders and managers need to be tolerant and patient: the shift to remote work was abrupt and many need some time to learn and get used to the new routine. Speaking the truth, it may be harder to reap all the benefits of remote work amid the Corona virus crisis, but see this as a great training opportunity to be prepared for the future of work.
Trust your employees: many of them care about the success of the company as much as you do and will do their very best to achieve great results. Even if you cannot see them at their desks, trust they are working hard.
Realistically, shifting to remote work is not simple: to thrive, leaders and managers need to nurture a culture that encourages this change. Focusing on culture means going beyond processes and KPIs to consider everything that glues the organization together and supports its functioning, including social norms, systems and technology, and communication style.
As we said before, especially during the COVID-19 emergency and all the uncertainty coming from it, we recommend an open, positive, and tolerant culture. It is crucial to improve transparency in processes, expectations, and deliverables: remember, there won’t be face-to-face communication, so supervisors and managers will save a lot of time replying to emails and chats if they make things clear from the beginning. On the other hand, encourage open communication, as some employees may worry about being too in touch. Since colleagues and managers won’t be sitting next door, reassure them that it is okay to text or call them.
It is also key to make everyone feel included in the new organizational reality: maybe newer employees, those with less crucial functions, or the less tech-savvy may feel their voice is lost amid the waves of texts and video calls. They may just need more one-on-one communication and some extra encouragement to reach out and speak up, so you may consider checking on them more often or directly asking for their input during meetings.
Further, make sure to keep up with the team-building activities on planning: some may need to be adjusted, but do not let the shift to remote work disintegrate your teams. There are many ways to keep informal social activities going even if everyone is in quarantine! You may still have the Friday drinks or the pizza nights; toasts will only be virtual. With remote work, it may be hard to keep the morale up by, for example, celebrating successes. Although people are not all gathered in the office sharing cake, there can be many creative ways to acknowledge small victories: these will further strengthen the culture and make the organization feel less dispersed.
We know, very few companies were well-prepared for this shift, but that does not mean they cannot learn in the process. This is why you should remember to provide proper training to workers of all levels and age. Encourage employees to stay updated by suggesting online courses, blog posts, or even by offering online workshops. These may range from mastering new coordination tools (such as Google Suite or Microsoft Suite) to how to balance personal and work life when remote, or how to keep a healthy diet when working from home, and even some relaxation techniques. Harvard Business Review offers its Coronavirus coverage free for all readers, for example.
Once again, see the silver lining in the grey clouds of the crisis: this was the push too many businesses needed to get over those routines that were only stifling innovation. This may only be an intense bootcamp training to be ready for the future of work and we hope that these tips can help managers and leaders make the most out of remote work during the quarantine.