There’s a lot to hate about COVID-19 and how it is hurting people and organizations.
However, the pandemic could also lead to something we come to love: telecommuting as never before.
Many companies are responding to the global Coronavirus outbreak by asking as many employees as possible to work from home. Not surprisingly, many of the best examples of organizations taking the lead on “social distancing” at this time are Great Place to Work-Certified™ organizations—companies including technology provider Citrix, financial services company Capital One and job site Indeed.
These companies are showing they are serious about not only caring for their own employees, but also protecting the broader community, given the public health imperative to “flatten the curve” when it comes to the spread of the virus.
It’s not as easy as saying “just stay home and work.”
Good-faith efforts to safeguard people by having employees work remotely pose challenges:
- Organizations that haven’t enabled or promoted telework in the past are suddenly in unfamiliar situations with no existing norms to lean on.
- Teams may not know how to collaborate well when colleagues are no longer across the table.
- Leaders may not know how to check in on their people effectively when those employees are scattered throughout a region.
- Technology departments may not have outfitted employees with systems for remote, secure work and collaboration.
- Executives and everyone else may be missing the camaraderie and community of a busy office—just when people are hungrier than ever for connection and reassurance.
Any one of these can make productive telecommuting difficult.
Fortunately, there are some best practices for telecommuting that you can learn from during these unprecedented days:
Tap smart collaboration tools — especially videoconferencing
Even though employees may be isolated in their homes, that doesn’t mean collaboration and communication have to grind to a halt.
Today, there are many cloud-based technologies that make remote work as efficient and effective as working in a traditional office.
Teleconferencing tools in particular are powerful for restoring social connection and offering much richer communication than emails, intranets or phone calls alone. Seeing a familiar face or faces on the screen, being able to read gestures and body language, and the ability to share documents “live” goes a long way.
According to Harvard Business Review, teams that use videoconferencing experience higher levels of collaboration on decisions reached by videoconference compared to decisions made through a phone call or email.
Communicate frequently — and not just about work
Remote work arrangements can leave people feeling lonely, isolated and adrift.
The solution is to communicate plenty. This means clear guidance from leaders as well as opportunities for employees to pose questions and offer ideas.
The exchanges shouldn’t just be about work, though. Especially if companies are going to have people working remotely for weeks or months on end, there ought to be an “intentional remote culture.” That’s a term used by Kai Andrews, a consultant with advisory firm Point B.
“Don’t abandon the tenets that make your company culture unique. Hold regular virtual non-work related meetings with your employees to talk about more casual topics,” Kai wrote in a recent article.
“Identify ‘water-cooler topic’ leaders who can form virtual discussion groups around topics such as sports, movies, cooking and much more. Employees can self-select into groups and new connections will form while old connections are maintained,” Kai suggests.
Plan and set clear policies—even if you’ve already sent people home
Other sound suggestions from Point B regarding remote employees include:
- Establishing expectations around work hours
- Providing guidance for teleconferencing etiquette (for example, on-camera eating is usually a no-no)
- Expand support resources so employees don’t get frustrated about failed log-ins and other snafus
Among the companies that have moved quickly along these lines is Citrix, a Great Place to Work-Certified firm that offers software to enable secure, remote working.
“In high-risk areas like China, Republic of Korea and Japan, Citrix has leveraged our own virtualization and workspace solutions to rapidly mobilize our entire employee population — which includes engineering, customer support, sales, finance, marketing, and human resources — and transitioned them all to work from home within 24 hours,” Citrix CEO David Henshall wrote in a recent blog.
“We are pleased to report that throughout this remote-work response, our employees in these areas have remained safe and connected, and their productivity and customer service levels remain unchanged,” said David.
Telework and trust
COVID-19 gives organizations an opportunity to deepen trust — by trusting people when it comes to telecommuting.
Roughly 50 percent of U.S. employees work remotely at least once a week, according to research from collaboration technology firm Owl Labs. But about 80% of American employees believe remote work would make them feel happier, less stressed and more trusted.
The study also shows employees reciprocate when given telecommute options: remote workers are more inclined to recommend their employer to a friend and less likely to leave their company than office-bound colleagues.
I can speak personally about the power of remote work options to improve the employee experience. For about a year, I’ve worked out of my San Francisco home nearly 100 percent of the time.
Our Great Place to Work® office is in Oakland — not super far away but not a cheap commute on the local mass-transit train system. My immediate supervisor is based in New York, and my wider team is scattered across the country and globe.
It’s really helpful for me to have this telecommuting option, which generally includes one or more videoconferencing calls a day as well as plenty of written communication via email and our intranet.
Perhaps most powerful about this arrangement is the way I feel Great Place to Work leaders believe in me to do good work. That trust amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy: I work hard, and my remote-working peers work hard, in part because leadership trusts us to work on our own terms, in our own spaces.
COVID-19 is clearly awful, and the months ahead are likely to be dark in many respects. Forced remote working arrangements are proving challenging for many people—think about all the employees juggling work at home with childcare now that schools are closed. But there may be an upside to this pandemic related to telework.
Many employees and organizations will get to test out telecommuting. And when it is safe to work together again, we will have learned how to work remotely in ways that are better for business, better for people and better for our communities.
We might just learn to love telecommuting.
Discover what the employee experience is like at your company
Whether your team consists of no telecommuters, 100% telecommuters or somewhere in between, the first step to creating the best possible workplace for them is learning how they feel about the current work environment.
Ed Frauenheim is Senior Director of Content at Great Place to Work®. He provides insights and shares stories about how great workplaces are better for business, better for people and better for the world. He has spoken at numerous events, published articles in Fortune, Wired and Inc. and co-written three books, including A Great Place to Work For All.