Between 2005 and 2017, the number of remote workers in the U.S. increased by 159%, according to The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce Report. Today, only a few months into 2020 and in the wake of a global pandemic, a vast number of employees will experience firsthand just what it’s like to be part of a remote workforce—and companies on what it’s like to run one.
As part of President Trump’s coronavirus guidelines for Americans to slow the spread, companies are shutting down and urged to go remote if possible. While such protocols have no precedence, businesses forced to go remote do have examples to look to as a reference. Companies like Buffer, Zapier, and Basecamp have been fully remote far before the crisis and have proved that a remote workforce can be successfully executed and managed. In fact, employers may even find that implementing such a program presents a payoff that can go far beyond public safety and health.
Below is a step-by-step guide—complete with suggested tools and resources—on how to strategically implement a remote work program, effective as soon as possible. For more tips and tools on guiding your companies and employees through this coronavirus crisis, join us in a live panel discussion and Q&A on April 1 at 11 a.m. PT / 2 p.m. ET with HR leader and #HRSocialHour Podcast host Jon Thurmond, employment attorney Kate Bischoff, and outplacement veteran Caroline Vernon. Register here for the 1-hour live chat.
1. Equip your employees
In order to keep business operations running as smoothly as possible off-site, make sure that your employees have the proper equipment to do their work. This requires partnering with your IT department and managers to determine what equipment is essential (for instance, laptops, chargers, monitors, phones, etc.). Along with hardware, you must also consider the necessary software that should be installed. If your company is not already doing so, you may want to opt for shared drives and files so employees can easily access what they need from home.
While there’s no wide-reaching federal law that requires employers to reimburse equipment expenses for remote employees, some states have related measures as part of its remote work policies. For instance, in California, the California Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to make sure their employees are working in safe and healthy surroundings, whether they’re working in the office or remotely. It also requires employers to reimburse their remote employees for all their work-related expenses, which includes the workstations they create in their homes, Internet fees, and tax deductions. Additionally, the labor code 2802 cell phone law, requires remote workers who use their cell phones for work to be reimbursed as well. Be sure to check the legal requirements of your state to stay compliant.
2. Prioritize data security.
Another very important but often overlooked precaution is setting up employees with proper data security measures. Be sure that your employees are educated on basic security guidelines such as flagging phishing emails and securing their network and devices. One way to protect employee data is to deploy a virtual private network (VPN). VPNs allow employees to safely connect to a remote network of computers by disguising the user’s IP address and location. Whenever possible, it’s also a good idea to store all confidential information on cloud-based apps. You should also ensure all your business-critical passwords are securely stored in the event anything happens to key personnel. An enterprise-focused password manager may also help in this regard.
3. Combat loneliness with communication.
As reported in Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, the second-most reported challenge of remote workers is loneliness. Paired now with mandates to quarantine or social distance, this effect is only going to rise. To protect your employees’ mental health, motivation, and productivity, managers should go out of their way to reach out and communicate personally beyond just e-mail. A good practice is to establish daily 1:1s so each member of the team feels connected and can go over personal projects. Then, set up a weekly time for the entire team to chat and go over collaborative projects. To create much-needed face-to-face interaction, look into video conferencing tools to better replicate an in-person experience.
4. Measure productivity.
While managers may feel insecure about their employees’ productivity because they can’t see them working, studies show that the opposite may actually be true. In a 2-year study on 500 employees at Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency, Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom discovered that remote work actually boosted employee productivity by 13%. Additionally, it also reduced employee attrition by 50% and saved the company almost $2,000 per employee on rent alone. So instead of worrying about when your employee is working, shift your focus instead to what they’re getting done. The key to doing so effectively is to set clear goals and measure performance against them.
Whatever the goal may be, establishing a concrete metric helps quantify success for the team and consequently provides a path to success for each individual team member. Project management tools can help manage and track the moving parts of a project and foster collaboration in a remote workforce.
5. Reinforce your employer brand.
With so much focus on the importance of employer brand over the last few years, now more than ever is the time to demonstrate your company values to both employees and customers. Is the way you are behaving in line with the company mission, statement, and values that you’ve been marketing to employees before a crisis? Are not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk? Of course, not all employers are able to implement generous policies such as paid sick leave or continued pay during the shutdown like Darden Restaurants, Amazon, REI, Taco Bell, but every company can do what they absolutely can to take care of their employees during this time. At this point, every gesture counts as these are the moments that will be appreciated through bad times and remembered in the good. Remember, employees are talking about how you as an employer handle this crisis online and, as always, word gets out.
As people are isolating together on social media, an easy way to communicate your employer brand in light of coronavirus is to give updates and share sentiments on your company’s social media channels. The message you put on there matters most in times like these and your employees are watching.
6. Set reasonable expectations.
Lastly, the coronavirus has been emotionally challenging for many people, changing day-to-day life in unprecedented ways such as attending to primary needs of their children, family, or themselves during traditional work hours. Keeping all this in mind, managers should seek to understand what each employee’s individual circumstances look like and plan to work together, whether that’s accommodating an earlier or later schedule, accepting more noise or distractions on calls, or being more flexible with deadlines.
As Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher wrote in a Medium piece, “We knew schools would be closing around the world. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect someone to be fully present, eight hours a day, when they have a three-year-old with crayons drawing on the wall, or an elderly parent who needs help navigating the stairs. We all have loved ones who need care, groceries that need purchasing, doctor’s appointments to keep, neighbors who need a phone call. And you know what? We trust our colleagues. People will work when they can, and when they can’t, we trust they’ll be right.” Companies invested in their employees (and business) should be conscious and empathetic to this new reality and adjust accordingly.
Before the coronavirus, we knew that the future of work was becoming more remote. What we didn’t foresee was how sudden and swift it was going to happen. While we’ve been plunged head first into deep waters, we have the ability and tools to swim. Now we just have to do it, and perhaps we can find some comfort in knowing many of us are doing our first lap together.
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