Coronavirus has prompted a global shift toward remote work — here’s what you need to know. The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus (commonly referred to as the coronavirus) is forcing companies around the world to implement emergency remote-work programs. Here in the United States, major employers like Facebook, Amazon and Indeed have already sent some of their teams home for the near-term future, and more companies are likely to follow suit.
Contingency plans should be implemented on a case-by-case basis and in accordance with public health guidelines. Still, the massive, overnight trend toward work-from-home policies begs the question: Should employers send their teams home?
Coronavirus Concerns: Current State of Remote Work
Last week, the World Health Organization released an official statement confirming reports that there are more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide. According to the CDC, 647 cases and 25 deaths have been confirmed in the U.S.
Organizations in communities where cases are more concentrated have been quick to cancel events — including SXSW 2020 in Austin, TX — suspend corporate travel and, ultimately, send employees home. Just this week the SEC became the first federal agency to instate remote work in response to the coronavirus outbreak, sending its Washington, D.C. employees home “until further guidance."
Remote work has exploded as business has become increasingly digital; more than 26 million Americans worked from home for at least part of the workday in 2019. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, videoconferencing traffic has more than doubled in Asia and North America, highlighting the global shift toward remote work. In fact, some experts believe the outbreak will lead to a widespread adoption of permanent work-from-home policies.
Should Employers Implement a Work-From-Home Policy?
Several companies have begun stress-testing remote work contingency plans in preparation for mandatory office closures, as recommended by the CDC. While you can’t halt business altogether, the health and safety of your employees must always be a top priority.
The CDC recommends the following considerations when preparing a contingency plan:
What to Consider When Implementing a COVID-19 Remote-Work Policy:
- Disease severity in the surrounding community
- Employee risk of disease impact
- Increased employee absences due to illness and/or family member illness
- Multiple offices and adjusted response plans according to location
- State and local health official guidelines
When deciding whether to implement a work-from-home policy, it is imperative to ensure your team is fully prepared for the transition. COVID-19 is still being understood and the spread of the virus is being carefully monitored. While it is vital that every organization evaluate its unique situation prior to mandating remote work, the CDC encourages all employers to be prepared to implement strategies to safeguard employee health.
At the very least, general public health guidelines urge employers to adapt sick-leave policies with the understanding that employees may need to stay home to care for sick children and family members more frequently. Additionally, employers are advised to strongly encourage all employees to stay home if they feel sick and refrain from returning to work until they are free of symptoms for at least 24 hours.
6 Tips to Make Remote Work Effective
If you decide to send your employees remote, use the following guidelines and advice from team leaders to ensure your business continues to run smoothly. These tips can be adapted to fit long-term work-from-home policies, should you choose to offer remote work opportunities in the future.
1. Make communication a priority
A huge concern regarding remote work is a lack of productivity. In order to ensure tasks are completed efficiently and accurately while employees are working from home, set communication expectations between managers and direct reports.
Paul Parker, VP of Technology Operations at CLEAR, starts each day with a full-team meeting. “The team meets for a daily standup (video is mandatory!) to discuss the day ahead,” says Parker. “Team members are urged to give each other timely and meaningful feedback and share their experiences (both good and bad) with the rest of the group.”
This provides a more direct and clear communication channel where employees can get specific questions answered before diving into work and managers can adjust the individual’s priorities or deadlines without creating unnecessary confusion.
2. Utilize conferencing and task-management software
Invest in tools that can smooth out indirect communication over the course of the workday. Slack and Google Hangouts are excellent tools for instant messaging, while Skype and Zoom enable face-to-face communication to keep teams engaged while apart.
Suzanne Pherigo, Director of Engineering at DigitalOcean, recommends virtual-conferencing tools to streamline communication. “Video is an amazing resource for remote teams,” says Pherigo. “We hold all of our meetings over video. It is so much more engaging than just talking on the phone or communicating via email.”
To keep track of assignments and monitor productivity, consider implementing a task-management platform like Monday.com or Asana. Communication and productivity software can be leveraged well after employees return to the office, making the investment a worthwhile part of your long-term business strategy.
3. Encourage transparency between team members
It’s easy to discuss problems and get questions answered when employees are at their desks. With a remote team, however, it’s much more difficult to ensure everyone is available during the same working hours. Life will continue to happen, and employees will need to schedule meetings, make appointments and take breaks throughout the day.
To keep her remote team running smoothly, Sally Powell Huege, Assistant Director of Client Engagement at MatchCraft, leverages public calendars to encourage accountability. “We practice schedule transparency across the team and organization,” says Powell Huege. “Having a view into when team members are online, out of the office for breaks, lunches or appointments is an important part of our remote team being successful and productive.”
4. Educate all employees about the policy
Before sending your team remote, dedicate time to train managers on the policy and clearly explain the rules and expectations to every team member. This is vital to your team’s success, especially if you plan to keep employees out of the office for an extended period of time.
Employees hold the majority of the responsibility for accomplishing work in a timely manner. Still, it’s up to senior and middle management to keep business routines as close to normal as possible. Jeremy Shankle, Web Applications Team Lead at Smartling, says effective remote work comes from your company culture. “Constant communication and trust-building is necessary for success,” says Shankle.
“We use text-based communication some, but we often very quickly switch to audio or video calls to make sure we really understand each others perspectives on any given issue,” adds Shankle. Remote work will undoubtedly interfere with elements of your culture, but it should not prevent your employees from feeling informed and engaged.
5. Check in with team members regularly
To ensure your work-from-home policy is as successful as can be, encourage managers to check in with their direct reports. Has productivity increased, or are there major project delays? What challenges are they facing? Are they clear on their responsibilities?
Kelda Stetson, Vice President of State Government Sales at Granicus, makes sure each of her team members is set up for success. “I prioritize weekly one-on-ones and my team meeting each week to keep my team engaged and make sure they have what they need from me and the broader organization to keep their businesses thriving,” says Stetson.
“I align clear goals for each team member and always make sure they understand the goals of our organization, and more broadly of Granicus,” Stetson adds. “This helps each contributor understand their part and challenges them to deliver consistent results.”
6. Lead with trust
It’s tempting to switch into micromanaging mode when several teams — or your entire staff — are working from home, but doing so will only create problems. In order for your work-from-home policy to be effective, senior and middle management need to trust their direct reports to uphold expectations and adhere to the rules. If employees fail to do so, act accordingly, whether that means adjusting the policy or addressing employees individually.
Attempting to micromanage from afar will aggravate employees and make an already stressful situation more difficult. To manage her remote team, Stack Overflow’s Director of Design, Kristina Lustig, empowers and relies on her direct reports. “Trusting the people on my team to do their work and letting them control how they’re engaging with it makes them more engaged overall,” says Lustig.
“A lot of successful teamwork comes down to communication, so we make sure that they have everything they need to do their jobs,” she adds. “We make sure that they’re getting timely feedback, both positive and critical.”
Again, every organization must respond to the unique situation in their local community and company. As the current situation surrounding coronavirus unfolds, stay up to date about local and global health guidelines to make a well-informed decision regarding your employees’ health and safety.