By: Joe Peters
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies have implemented mandatory work-from-home policies to help contain the spread of COVID-19. While large companies have the resources and experience to foster a massive ‘home office shift’, smaller companies who have never implemented such policies before are facing numerous questions regarding this new work arrangement.
Questions regarding workload, working hours, office equipment, communication, reporting, and employee safety all need to be answered to retain at least some semblance of business continuity.
Here are some practical guidelines designed for both short-term and long-term work-at-home needs.
Tip 1: Managing Workload
One of the first things managers and business leaders need to establish is employee workload. As many businesses are losing customers, limiting the amount of work or work hours may be necessary to cut down on costs.
Employees may not like the idea of working fewer hours from home, earning less money. In such an extreme situation, though, it’s a compromise towards keeping a job.
Businesses can also look at which products or services are not producing much profit and stop allocating resources towards their deployment. Focus your workforce on those tasks that will keep customers happy and contribute to the bottom line now and in the future.
The final and least fortunate solution to cut down on workload during the COVID-19 pandemic is to send employees home permanently.
Some companies will not be able to pay employees to perform minimal work for minimal pay while staying at home. This may not be a work-from-home solution that employees will like. However, it may be the only solution some businesses will have to survive during the pandemic.
These layoffs can be temporary, and employees can be rehired once business resumes. To ease the pain of laying off employees during this crisis, all efforts should be made to help them obtain unemployment benefits until they can resume work.
Tip 2: Managing Work Hours
As many employees have family members staying at home as well, they will have to manage their time between family and work. Therefore, business leaders and managers should be as flexible as possible when it comes to working hours.
Maintaining regular work and family hours is important because it gives a sense of continuity to employees.
Ideally, employees should be able to structure their day as it was before so that employers, employees, and their families retain some stability during these unstable times. This will positively reflect on their overall efficiency.
Your employees will have to fill up multiple roles all of a sudden – that of employees, educators, caregivers. Being open and honest and showing flexibility and empathy during those times will help strengthen the bond your employees have to your company.
Tip 3: Managing Equipment
The necessary equipment will depend on the business. However, there are certain pieces that are required for remote work regardless of industry.
The typical requirements for these ‘must-have’ remote-work items are:
Computers and Software
Most companies allow remote workers to use a PC or Mac from home, although certain positions may require the employee to work on a specific operating system.
In such cases, the employer should provide the employee with a computing device that comes with this software or provide them with the most updated version of the software so that they can install it on their home computer.
Other software that remote workers usually need access to are communication and collaboration tools, and any specialized software that your business is using regularly.
If the employer is supplying computer systems to their remote workers, then all the relevant software will already be provided.
Some software solutions are not only making remote work possible but can also automate or significantly speed up tasks. Software like Quickbooks can help facilitate administrative and accounting tasks, while cloud-technology and tech-gadgets like POS displays and card readers can help employees access and share information as well as help them perform mundane tasks quickly and with ease.
If employees will use their own computing devices, then managers should provide a list of required software and do all that is necessary to help them secure the software on that list.
Departments like customer service usually require a dedicated landline. In this case, cell phone providers or VOIP services (e.g., Skype, Google Voice) can not be used.
Employees who do not have a dedicated landline but require one to perform their job can usually bundle this service with their internet connection at a discounted rate.
If possible, team leaders and managers should provide the means for employees to obtain a dedicated landline for work purposes at home, especially if they want them to reserve such a line for business purposes only.
The minimum internet connectivity requirements for most businesses are a hardwired, high-speed (3 to 5 megabits) DSL or cable connection, which helps ensure stability and good user experience.
If employees can not obtain a hardwired connection with the appropriate speed, then employers should either arrange their connections for them or reimburse employees for purchasing it themselves.
It’s also wise to include a backup cell phone or other WiFi connection for scenarios like power outages and server downtime when mobile connections can be used to create hotspots.
Telephone Headset and Webcam
Constant communication will be critical during the pandemic, so a good quality headset and a webcam are necessary to hold virtual meetings between team leaders and their teams.
If the employee can not secure a headset and webcam for their home-work, either because they can not afford one or they cannot purchase one online or at a brick-and-mortar shop due to lockdown, then it will be the employer’s job to arrange one for them.
A printer that contains a scanner may be required occasionally for delivering important documents like signed contracts, W9s, and certified forms. As this item may not be required immediately, managers can hold off on supplying or suggesting to their work-at-home employees to secure one right away.
Tip 4: Managing Progress
The tips and guidelines that have been discussed thus far, while important, will amount to nothing without proper communication between managers and remote workers.
Studies have shown that many remote workers end up feeling isolated, lonely, and disconnected when working from home.
Businesses and employees who succeed in the work-from-home arena often attribute their success to good communication, which usually entails two components: technology and understanding.
Understanding entails a transference and acceptance of business goals and priorities, such as deadlines and important projects, among managers and remote workers.
As for technology, the basic equipment and their requirements are not enough to keep employees engaged and inspired. Businesses need to provide remote workers with technology that assists in task reporting, task monitoring, and task delegation.
In addition, they also must have clear strategies and processes set in place for both work and communication.
Companies that successfully run decentralized teams and workforces have found that the four specific procedures make remote team management easier:
- Understanding projects & tasks: be clear and detailed in what you expect from work-from-home employees. After delegating a task, the manager should query the employee to see if they fully understand what they need to do and answer any questions as needed.
- Matching communication tools with tasks: When and through what channel should an employer contact a work-from-home employee to delegate a specific task? Decide on and inform your remote staff on which communication channel to use and when they are going to use it to delegate remote work tasks and responsibilities.
- Constant documentation: Employees and employers alike should document every question, completed task, order, and request during the delegation process to uncover challenges early on. This will help make roles clearer and save time on discrepancies that could turn into major hurdles if left unchecked.
- Breaking up projects/tasks: many employees will be under severe stress during their mandatory work-from-home stint, so having them share the load is probably a good idea.
If possible, team leaders should cross-train remote workers in various project tasks just in case some of the remote team members become unavailable.
Task delegation should be as flexible as possible to meet the current situation, which demands the utmost in business and remote work adaptability.
Task Reporting and Monitoring
Remote monitoring is necessary for keeping employees goal-oriented and meeting deadlines.
Whether a business’ remote workforce is a permanent or temporary solution, there has to be a task reporting system set in place to measure output.
Remote task reporting can help build trust, accountability, and focus amongst remote workers, maximizing billing (if applicable), increasing employee performance, reducing loss of earnings, and ensuring project/task stability.
A good task reporting tool will offer features for time tracking, URL/application monitoring, activity tracking, reports & invoices, and more that suit your specific business needs.
Managers and team leaders do not have to constantly call their employees to gauge whether they are working or not because there is plenty of remote employee monitoring software on the market that can do this for them.
Most of this software will generate reports and invoices that measure the time an employee spends on a project or task and the progress they have made during that time.
There is a variety of task reporting and monitoring software highly-rated for their ability to track time, monitor productivity, and integrate with other remote-access apps and software.
Remote employees need to feel that they are part of the company or team to stay positive and engaged while working from their solitary home office confinement. Team leaders must, therefore, incorporate effective communication methods that keep their employees motivated.
For instance, defining goals is no different within an office than within a work-from-home environment. The only difference is the means of communicating them – in person or through digital channels.
Sometimes, managers will need to contact an employee directly to make sure they understand what their tasks are and how their efforts contribute to the company’s goals. In other situations, an email or text message will suffice.
The means of communication doesn’t matter as much as the way of communication.
Was the goal identified and stated clearly by the employer and sufficiently understood by the employee? If not, then the process of communication should be rectified until it is clear on both ends what the final result should be.
For effective collaboration between team leaders and remote team staff members, everyone should use the same platforms, software, and tools.
For example, if remote employees are using different kinds of video conferencing platforms, then it will be near impossible for them to hold meetings with one another.
Not only should managers make sure that all work-at-home employees are using the same communication platforms and software, but they should also make sure that they are trained and well-versed in their usage so there will be no delays in communication.
Work-at-home employee feedback is important because it helps uncover problems quicker and therefore allows team leaders and managers to come up with solutions as early as possible.
To make it easier for employees to provide open and honest feedback, specific times should be set for virtual meetings that allow remote employees to discuss any issues they may be facing.
This includes not requesting feedback when they are busy or shutting down for the day.
Sometimes managers feel the need to contact employees for every little status update. This is usually not met with great enthusiasm by employees who are working from home for the first time.
Of course, managers and team leaders should make themselves as available as possible for their remote staff should they need them. However, they should not forget to reserve their queries regarding progress updates for those times when their employees are in a good position to answer them.
Employee workflow today is already interrupted due to the COVID-19 crisis, so adding to that disruption by constantly requesting feedback and updates will only make remote employees more nervous, which will cause their productivity to decline.
Respecting remote employee’s workflow also means taking a proactive role in their work life.
Managers and team leaders need to be in contact with their remote team members regularly to help them arrange time schedules, task responsibilities, and potential role changes if needed while they get the hang of their new work environment.
Being proactive means communicating with the right employee at the right time and through the right channel to ensure a smooth work-from-home transition.
Tip 5: Managing Safety
Work-from-home safety concerns two areas: employee safety and company data safety.
Both are important as employees need to stay healthy to work successfully from home, and company data needs to stay secure so that it does not get lost, stolen, or hacked.
As coronavirus safety goes, there are probably no better guidelines to follow than those provided by the World Health Organization.
Managers and team leaders should address any healthcare and sick leave concerns early to prevent employees from hiding their problems and making it worse for themselves and others.
The second safety precaution managers need to look at is how to secure the company’s cyber-workspace when their employees are accessing it from their homes.
Cyberattacks cost companies around $200,000 per year. Unfortunately, a quick shift from secure office space to an unsecured home environment creates many security risks for businesses.
Bug disclosures, threat campaigns, and a host of other cyber attacks are more challenging to avoid when remote access to company data is granted.
However, designing a sound work-from-home strategy can help mitigate these risks.
These guidelines outline specific steps employees and employers can apply almost immediately to reduce the chances of a cyber attack.
- Be suspicious of any emails asking to change, renew, or check passwords/login details.
- Be suspicious of any emails asking to open files or clicking links.
- Ensure a WiFi connection is secure.
- Ensure that all antivirus software is up to date.
- Check the validity of privacy tools, add-ons, and other patches regularly.
- Avoid co-working or shared space environments at the moment. If this is not possible, then at least lock the screen when not in use.
- Utilize encryption tools.
- Verify a secure connection to company data before accessing it.
- Employees should receive relevant details such as emergency protocols and contact numbers should a security issue arise.
- Grant remote access solutions like encryption capabilities to work-at-home employees.
- Employ virtual security solutions like virtual approval and electronic signatures to secure remote workflow.
- Restrict sensitive data, files, and systems to only those employees who need it to perform their daily tasks and projects.
Aside from the guidelines listed above, employers should also develop a sound strategy for backing up data that their employees can implement from their homes.
Backup and data safety is not a common concern for your employees when they are working on office computers and dedicated company networks. However, working from home, connecting to a variety of networks, storing data across multiple places opens up many risks for the company.
Even small businesses with limited resources should have a backup strategy in place to protect their business. Data breaches or even short downtime can cost your business a lot of money. And in worst-case scenarios, the consequences can be more severe than the current impact COVID-19 has on your company.
Work-From-Home Business Survival
The current COVID-19 pandemic does not have to be a ‘business killer’.
Any business, whether they be highly-experienced when it comes to remote work or not, will have better chances of surviving the COVID-19 pandemic by applying the five tips listed in this guide.
These tips offer fundamental work-from-home guidelines that can help managers and team leaders develop a work-from-home strategy that can be applied temporarily or permanently, whichever the case may be.
About the Author
Joe Peters is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and an ultimate techie. When he is not working his magic as a marketing consultant, this incurable tech junkie devours the news on the latest gadgets and binge-watches his favorite TV shows. Follow him on @bmorepeters