As the coronavirus spreads across the globe ― with a spike in cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea in recent days ― the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) is urging organizations to create contingency plans should the disease continue to spread.
Nestlé SA told more than 290,000 employees to suspend all international business travel until March 15 and requested that all domestic trips be skipped whenever possible for the time being. The company is also encouraging employees to work from home where possible. Goldman Sachs Group and Siemens AG also are restricting travel for employees.
Implementing a flexible work policy and infrastructure is the best way to help minimize business disruption resulting from epidemics like we are facing today. Remote work, however, is not as simple as hopping on the phone or opening your laptop to get to work.
Many companies, for example, need to quickly define the rules of engagement for employees that historically have not worked in a purely remote environment. They are faced with the challenge of getting the right equipment, digital tools, processes and policies in place to respond to this global event.
As your company seeks to implement remote-work plans, following are some guiding principles to get you started.
- 1. Design clear policies. Clearly define participation rules and guidelines for remote workers, including expectations around working hours and etiquette around remote meetings. Working from home does not equate flexible work hours. Make it clear that team members are expected to be online and available during regular working hours. Also, set standards for virtual team meetings. All employees should use video during meetings to build team unity and connectedness.
- 2. Implement effective change-management principles. A sudden shift to remote work can be extremely disruptive. Make sure that leadership offers a constant stream of communication, reinforcing why the shift has taken place and where employees can turn for help ― both in relation to their work but also for emotional support. Leadership also needs to model effective remote behavior, which can sometimes be as simple as turning on video in a meeting. Show trust in remote workers. Keep listening and communicating. Never underestimate the emotional aspects of this change. Ignoring them results in real productivity dips.
- 3. Ensure you have reliable tools. Many types of work can now be done remotely if people have the right digital-collaboration tools. Virtual whiteboard tools like Mural, for example, allow teams to co-create and share ideas more effectively. Secure, cloud-based content-management systems, like OneDrive for Business, Box and SharePoint Online, provide simultaneous editing and sharing capabilities, and also allow for efficient content discovery.
- 4. Provide responsive support. Create a support infrastructure that prioritizes remote-worker requests and maintain the tools to handle issues remotely. Help-desk personnel and procedures should be updated to include new remote-work use cases and tools. Also, be sure to augment your self-service help capabilities by creating learning portals on your intranet that teach your employees how to use new tools. Publish use cases so that there is less guessing time as to which tool to use when.
- 5. Create an intentional remote culture. Don’t abandon the tenets that make your company culture unique. Hold regular virtual nonwork-related meetings with your employees to talk about more casual topics. One idea is to 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.
Organizations are realizing that the future of work demands flexibility and agility. This is especially true in a world in which natural disasters and other emergencies continue to wreak havoc on the global economy. Implementing remote work can minimize downtime that can adversely affect your business by allowing most of your operations to continue during times of crises and unplanned upheaval.
Kai Andrews is a consultant with Point B, an integrated management consulting, venture investment and real estate development firm. Andrews’ expertise lies in leading companies through the design and execution of their workplace transformations to enable their Future of Work, with deep expertise in how to create and sustain collaborative working environments.