Over the course of the last two weeks, many companies in the U.S. and Canada have been forced to make major changes rapidly, including sending employees home to work remotely.
Ensuring sick employees stay home is the number one step businesses can take to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to the CDC.
However, according to U.S. Census data, just 5.2 percent of Americans worked from home in 2017. While that figure has risen steadily in recent years, the number of workplaces that have suddenly become remote is unprecedented. Experts warn a suddenly remote workforce poses new challenges for businesses, including increased demands for equipment and technology, cybersecurity concerns, reduced employee availability, heightened employee anxiety and disruption of normal workflow and communication channels.
While each company will scale its approach to steps such as bolstering cybersecurity and networking capacity, and providing remote employees with equipment such as laptops and monitors, leaders at businesses of all types and sizes can implement a few best practices.
1. Establish clear objectives and responsibilities
When a workforce accustomed to functioning in a shared space suddenly goes remote, it can be difficult for employees to discern how everyday goals can be achieved and what they should prioritize. Such confusion can negatively impact employee morale and engagement, as well as productivity.
Set roles and expectations early and make them available in written format in an online location accessible to all employees. Remind employees of which applications they can use to communicate with their colleagues and provide them with access to instructions for downloading and using these applications to reduce the demand on your IT team and help desk.
To minimize disruptions in your day-to-day operations it is helpful to establish a clear sense of not only who is in charge, but also who is available to help employees troubleshoot various issues they may encounter, such as using new technology and equipment.
Empowering managers, teams and individual employees with the information and tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively will go a long way toward reducing the anxiety and uncertainty that can accompany a dramatic change in working conditions.
2. Connect and inform
A study by Harvard Business Review found more remote-working employees feel overlooked and mistreated by their colleagues than employees working on site. The Review contends that these results show that leaders must make an effort to connect employees to one another and make them feel connected to the organization as a whole.
“Communication is absolutely critical,” emphasized Christine Tricoli, Corporate Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, H.W. Kaufman Group, Farmington Hills, Michigan. “All of a company’s good intentions, plans and great execution could fail without excellent communication. Even if nothing is changing, communicate. It is that important.”
Asking managers to schedule daily check-ins and establish clear channels for communication with their direct reports will help employees feel more supported. This can be as simple as scheduling a 15-minute chat via Slack, Zoom or Skype at 3pm every day or letting team members know that you are available until 5pm via email or Slack.
“Communication is absolutely critical. All of a company’s good intentions, plans and great execution could fail without excellent communication. Even if nothing is changing, communicate. It is that important.” – Christine Tricoli, H.W. Kaufman Group
Remind employees about their sick leave benefits, health plan updates and address concerns they may have about their employment during an unpredictable outbreak. If, for example, your company’s health care plan offers employees the option to see their health care providers via telehealth visits, make sure that employees are aware of this option and know how to take advantage of it.
Information about employee assistance programs and mental health resources should also be made readily available. At a time when staying home while sick is so critical, employers’ reassurances that ailing staff members will face no penalty for missing work and encouraging staff to take all the time they need to recover go a long way toward calming fears and boosting employee morale.
3. Equip employees with remote work best practices
Reassuring newly remote employees that you do not expect them to intuitively know how to navigate their changed work environment encourages them to ask questions and makes them feel supported.
Reinforcing this sense of support by providing concrete training in the form of online training in technology that may be new to employees, like Slack, or training and tips for working from home via LinkedIn Learning or other sources.
You can also set up your employees for success by encouraging them to follow proven strategies for productive remote work, such as setting consistent start and end times, dressing for the day rather than remaining in pajamas or sweats, taking breaks to stand, walk and eat lunch, and creating a workspace that is free from typical at-home distractions like television, laundry or dirty dishes.
Of course, leading by example is always the most persuasive means of engaging employees, so be sure to demonstrate the habits you would like your team members to follow, such as dressing appropriately for video chats and avoiding communications with your team outside of business hours to reinforce your message that you do not expect employees to be available 24/7 now that they are working from home.
Again, simple steps can be hugely helpful in maximizing remote workers’ efficiency and job satisfaction. Take a minute to do a roll call at the beginning of every conference call, allowing participants to greet the group, and remind everyone about conference call etiquette: avoid speaking over others, identify yourself when you speak, and use the “mute” button when not speaking to minimize disruptive sounds such as barking dogs, background conversations or similar.
When your newly remote workers inevitably make mistakes, be sure to model patience and a good sense of humor.
4. Be supportive and empathic
Despite our best efforts, the sudden shift to remote work can be challenging, emotionally and mentally—especially as anxiety mounts over COVID-19 and employees spend more time isolated and away from familiar faces and surroundings.
“Try to remain positive. If you have the option to present things in a positive or negative light, choose the positive. That helps employees frame their circumstances as manageable, and reminds them that it can and will get better.” –Tricoli
“It can feel very isolating to work from home and talking to colleagues can be very important for emotional wellness and productivity,” Tricoli noted. “It is crucial for managers to check in on the well-being of employees regularly to see how they and their families are managing during this time.”
Employees with children face practical obstacles during the current situation. With schools for at least half of U.S. children closed and daycare centers shuttered as well, many parents are struggling to balance work and family obligations.
Acknowledging employees’ challenging circumstances and responding in a supportive manner is critical to easing worries and maintaining business continuity, experts advise. Do not assume that employees know that they can have time off or flex their work hours to balance their work with new demands on the home front, such as homeschooling children or caring for a loved one who has fallen ill. Tell them what their options are and how to communicate their needs to their manager or HR team.
Research has shown empathy is a key contributor to employee engagement and satisfaction. It is essential for employees to know that their employer cares about them, according to Tricoli. Despite an uncertain path ahead, this is a time for coming together, she added.
“Give employees the benefit of the doubt on everything. Make more allowances now than you would under normal circumstances,” she advised. “Try to remain positive. If you have the option to present things in a positive or negative light, choose the positive. That helps employees frame their circumstances as manageable, and reminds them that it can and will get better.”
This information was provided by Burns & Wilcox, North America’s leading insurance broker and underwriting manager. As with any coverage need, an insurance broker or agent must be consulted.