2020 will see many employees, if only temporarily, working from home for the first time.
But it isn’t some IT initiative or long-planned business change that’s enforcing this cultural, behavioural and technological shift in working. The COVID-19 epidemic, bringing with it a time of worry and uncertainty for many businesses and employees, has dramatically upended our ingrained working practices.
As thousands of employees face a potential period of self-isolation, there’s more focus on the implications of that ‘isolation’ and the unprecedented challenge internal comms teams are facing to maintain community and collaboration as more of us become remote workers.
So, how can we help support our people, and remain agile, as we quickly move to a new way of working?
Recognise and address concerns
“Uncertainty can be really scary for people, because we just have no idea what’s going to happen. And whether you think the pandemic is overblown or, on the contrary, not being taken seriously enough, the bottom line is we don’t know how it’s going to unfold over the next few weeks and months. Your employees are going to have different responses based on where they live, what their savings cushion is, their current health status, and their general attitude toward risky things,” says Lindsay Kohler, lead behavioural scientist.
Providing clear guidelines about your business’s position on the situation – with helpful resources, advice and support – is important to address the many questions your people will have.
Communicate your contingency plan
Undoubtedly, your company will have a contingency plan in place for emergencies, and perhaps will have already drafted a specific one for coronavirus and other pandemics. Intel, for example, has an existing Pandemic Leadership Team. It’s your job to make sure managers and employees are aware of these business continuity plans to mitigate as much confusion as possible. How this is communicated to the business also matters. It’s rarely a good idea to be alarmist, but you need people to take the issue seriously and comply with your policies. Framing can make or break how a message is received.
Provide a central source of truth
As your workforce switches to remote working, maintaining a dedicated source of truth will become increasingly important. Make sure everyone knows exactly where to go to access the latest information on the situation. Consider the channels you have, their accessibility and the experience for remote workers on different devices.
Although many businesses now operate flexible and home working policies, stigma still exists, making employees feel they need to work twice as hard to prove they’re still contributing.
“We really have no choice but to get over it and get on with it,” says senior writer Jacey Lamerton. “Employers may have previously shied away from allowing home working because they perceive a loss of oversight and control but we must give our people more credit.”
And to overcome this negative perception simply requires better communication. It’s natural to make assumptions about what’s being done or not being done — but those assumptions are often incorrect. A quick instant message or a three-minute phone call, made with positive intent, can go a long way in making sure that you get the information or update you need.
Maximise the platforms you have
Don’t let the powerful online collaborative tools you have in your business go to waste. They’re ideal for bringing people together across disparate locations, helping maintain business as usual.
“We can use the online platforms and channels we have to help support the day-to-day tasks we all still need to do during this time of uncertainty,” adds Tony Stewart, head of digital.
Explore new platforms
an opportunity here to ‘ramp up’ use of new technology and platforms in
parts of the business too. If your business is trialling Slack, Teams
or Workplace, or you’ve rolled them out
but uptake has been slow, the sudden rise in home working might offer a
good opportunity to demonstrate the value of these tools. For example,
if Office365 is now part of your suite of tools, then now is the time to
jump into Teams and start using it for video conferencing, keeping each
other up to date, checking in with colleagues, and creating online
projects that can be collaborated on easily from lots of remote
Be mindful of security
If you’re leaning on shadow IT – ‘unofficial’ platforms such as WhatsApp – this may be the time to start using more IT-sanctioned tools to minimise the cyber risks. With everyone working remotely, you have less control over security measures, so using official, purpose-built platforms ensures your business data and essential working documents are where they should be.
Keep talking to IT
Your IT team will be facing increasing demands to support users across the business. It’s important to scope out bandwidth with them to manage expectations.
In times of uncertainty, people look to leaders for reassurance and direction. COVID-19, therefore, presents an opportunity for leaders to increase their visibility.
"There are three important considerations around this", says Alastair Atkinson.
"First, the content of leader messages needs to be well-thought out. They may not have all the answers in a situation that’s constantly evolving, but leaders should be honest and consistent in what they say, communicating an approach that feels considered and not knee-jerk. This will give your people a sense of stability and will build trust between employees and leaders.
Secondly, the tone of leader messaging is important. Conveying empathy and support at a time when colleagues might be afraid, or even personally affected by coronavirus, shows a human side to leaders. Again, this helps to build trust.
Thirdly, think carefully about the channels through which leaders communicate. If everyone’s working from home, you need to choose channels that are accessible outside the usual workplace."
COVID-19 might be disrupting normal working patterns, but your managers still need to get things done. Think about how you can help them. Do they need extra help in understanding how to use digital channels? Would some top tips on managing remote workers be useful? How can they make sure those ‘water cooler’ moments that would normally happen in the office don’t get missed completely?
Teams should try to coordinate certain times of “high responsiveness” with each other to help recreate in-person collaboration’s productivity and success. “Research has shown that teams that communicate in rapid bursts with immediate responses are more productive than those who have delayed feedback due to email response times or work being coordinated among multiple threads*,” says Kohler.
The changes will affect everyone differently and people will adjust at different times but inevitably, there are structures of an office environment that will be missed. But we can take steps to replicate them.
Daily routines, such as the commute, form clear periods of demarcation between personal and working time which can become blurred.
Encourage employees to create a designated space for working to help create mental boundaries between time for leisure and time for work.
Maintain the face-to-face feeling
Periods of time spent working from home can feel isolating. We sometimes take for granted the huge benefit to wellbeing that small daily interactions with our colleagues provide. Encourage people to book in times to catch up, as they might over a lunch or coffee break.
Create online spaces that mimic communities
Encourage and curate active social and community networks online. This can help normalise the new behaviour and bring a little levity to an otherwise heavy situation. For example, each week you can have a different theme: ‘What’s the funniest interruption you’ve had at home?’ or ‘Who has the cutest dog guest-starring on a video call?’
current situation will certainly present challenges for businesses and
their people in the weeks and months ahead. If you need support to help
your teams communicate and collaborate remotely, get in touch.
*Riedl, Christoph and Woolley, Anita Williams, Teams vs. Crowds: A Field Test of the Relative Contribution of Incentives, Member Ability, and Emergent Collaboration to Crowd-Based Problem Solving Performance (December 8, 2016). Academy of Management Discoveries, 3(4), 382-403