The government has stipulated that any non-essential workers should operate from home as much as possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
This will a have significant impact on your business, especially if your employees are not used to remote working. Maintaining business continuity during a crisis usually requires careful planning. For most businesses at the moment, this is a luxury. Getting your remote working system in place as quickly as possible is vital to minimising disruption to your business.
Think about this as an ongoing process and split into blocks to make it manageable: what you need to do immediately so your employees can continue working remotely, what you need to do once your employees are working from home so they can work smoothly and what you need to think about over the medium to long term if they are working at home for a long time.
Got 2 minutes? Use our checklist on how to set up remote working teams
Got 10 minutes? Read our detailed guide below on the stages of setting up remote working
Three stages to setting up remote working
Step 1: Immediate priorities
First and foremost, you need the right software in place so that employees can access systems in the same way they could in the office. A virtual private network (VPN) will be one of the first things to sort out. This enables access to your company’s servers and documents, no matter where you are. You should also ensure that all employees have access to laptops or computers if they need them. Video conferencing and chat software may also be useful.
“Remote workers benefit from having a ‘richer’ technology, such as video conferencing, that gives participants many of the visual cues that they would have if they were face-to-face,” said three academics writing for the Harvard Business Review. “Video is also particularly useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than written or audio-only communication.”
There are a wide range of programmes available, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Workplace from Facebook and Slack, that fulfil these and many other functions. Many offer a free service with less functionality than the paid versions, so it’s worth shopping around.
- Check what access to laptops or computers your employees have and provide laptops to those who need them
- Have a virtual private network (VPN) installed on employee’s laptops and make sure they know how to use it
- Make sure you have the right software in place to encourage “face-to-face” interaction
Step 2: Establish a routine and smooth out wrinkles
Many of your employees, especially if they are not used to working from home, will be wondering what is expected of them during this time. Establishing a routine and setting out parameters will go a long way to helping manage remote workers. Should they be mirroring their normal working hours as much as possible? Does work they were previously focussing on continue, or will you be deploying them elsewhere? Make sure employees are properly briefed and understand what they should be working on.
It’s likely that your employees will be remote working for at least three weeks. Once you’ve got a routine in place, make sure you are regularly reviewing what is working and what isn’t. Feedback and regular assessments of how your team’s experience is turning out will be vital. IT challenges, ways of working and communications wrinkles should all be monitored and improved during this time.
Because you haven’t had the luxury of planning in advance, you need to commit time to reviewing and tweaking things where necessary. Don’t assume things are working because you haven’t heard otherwise, go and find out for yourself.
- Establish structured regular check-ins with employees to discuss work priorities and challenges
- Ask employees for regular feedback on how they are finding things and for ideas about what would make their lives easier
- Review whether you need to introduce more software to solve unforeseen challenges
Step 3: Keep employees engaged and productive over the long term
“One of the biggest battles that managers are going to have as their employees or team members are now at home is isolation. Remote work is an actual learned skill. People don’t just do it well organically. So it’s important to help people, to coach people, to provide resources on how to do it well.” Tsedal Neeley, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School said in a podcast.
Remote working doesn’t automatically mean you will see a drop in productivity. But it will make it harder for leaders to monitor teams and pick up on signs that employees might be feeling disengaged. Managers need to ensure that regular communication – both as a team and also one to one – continues, so that employees don’t start feeling isolated and less connected to the company. Providing opportunities for colleagues to socialise virtually is also important so that colleagues feel like they have a support system and can share frustrations and help each other.
- Introduce regular team catch ups, where employees can report on what they’re working on and share challenges
- Look out for employees who you haven’t heard from recently. The absence of communication from an employee can often be a sign they’re struggling
- Establish virtual lunches or Friday afternoon drinks where employees can eat with each other or socialise over a video call
See our guide on staff welfare during the coronavirus outbreak.
Getting back to “normal”
At some point, the impact of coronavirus will recede and businesses will think about getting back to normal. Be prepared that your employees will be used to different ways of working and might not want to revert to their previous routine, at least not wholly.
Think about what your ‘returning to the office’ plan is – are you going to offer more flexible working now you have the systems to support it? Consider making this a collaborative process with your staff, who will appreciate being consulted and feel like you value their opinions.
These will be challenging months for many businesses, but any steps you take to encourage unity and openness will help you support your employees and protect the future of your business.
Don’t forget to use our checklist on how to set up remote working teams.