Just a few weeks ago, the ability to work from home was a perk or an as-needed benefit. Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, every employee with the ability to work remotely is doing so — and largely winging it. Companies are now scrambling to meet the needs of a work-from-home employee base, from equipment to security to space concerns, as their workers transition all at once.
While a migration from the traditional office to working remotely from home or any other location was already under way, with nearly a quarter of Americans working from home at least some of the time in 2018 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the global pandemic has accelerated the trend basically overnight. According to a recent HP survey, 96% of office employees are now working from home, and 63% are doing it without a dedicated work space. And everyone else is also now at home (spouses, roommates, pets, and kids). As a result, companies are now being challenged to maintain employee productivity, safety, and security while being nimble enough to continue adjusting to a new workplace — or workplace-less — dynamic.
“What’s unique today is the abruptness and completeness of transition to that mode of working for many organizations,” says Justin Hale, a training developer for the leadership training organization VitalSmarts. “Whereas previously they had the luxury of a hybrid model — many have suddenly had that option removed.”
Navigating this new reality can be daunting. Here are what companies need to focus on so their employees can successfully work from home for as long as they need to.
Empathize with staff as they experience new challenges
The current situation presents an array of unique challenges, and not only because of the abruptness of the transition. Many employees are now simultaneously working around their spouse’s or partner’s schedule, caring for or homeschooling children, and attempting to finding a quiet, separate place to work without interruption. Others are dealing with the sudden isolation of living alone, without the social outlet of work and going out.
Traditionally, those working from home often feel pressure to show a persona separate from their personal life, but that’s much more difficult today. HP’s chief human resources officer, Tracy Keogh, believes there’s an opportunity for managers to reduce that pressure by removing the veil and acknowledging that everyone is in the same boat.
“As a leader, you are modeling your authentic self and you need to bring that to work,” she says. Keogh adds that in recent weeks HP has been encouraging staff to bring their home life into the picture.
“One group did a Zoom call with their kids on their laps,” she says. “I was on with a senior leader who had a Zoom backdrop up and then he dropped it to show the chaos behind him.” This gives employees permission to be themselves and makes them feel more connected to their manager and the company.
Equip staff with the tools they need
A successful remote work strategy requires the right tools to keep business running and minimize disruption as much as possible. Fortunately there has been an explosion in software that enable remote meetings in recent years, such as Zoom and Microsoft Audio Conferencing.
Gagan Singh, vice president of strategy and innovation for HP’s commercial PC business, believes organizations need to put together a “cocktail of tools” to enable productivity while working remotely. “You also need a great chat tool, like Slack or Skype,” explains Singh. “Another program is Trello for project management, which also works well when you’re a boss asking ‘Hey, what are you working on?’”
Similarly, most employees will require more than their laptop to maintain day-to-day operations, such as external monitor displays and reliable printers and scanners, extras like noise-canceling headphones, and most importantly, a fast, secure internet connection. Companies have to assist in the best way they can, although they will not be able to meet every employee’s needs, as they will differ from location to location, home to home.
Ensure secure access from remote locations
The transition to home offices can pose significant security threats because employees are no longer logging into a centralized and well-protected network. As a result, each remote location poses its own vulnerabilities.
“You’ve got total control over your network when people are working at the office, and you’ve now got to make sure you have a secure connection, but you can’t just open up your internal network to the world,” says Mike Potter, CEO of Rewind, a service that backs up app-based business data stored in the cloud. “You’ve got to make sure your [virtual private network, or VPN] software is able to handle the increased load, and you’ve got to make sure the people who are working remotely have accounts on that VPN and can actually log in.”
Furthermore, with staff accessing company data from unsecured locations, HP’s Singh recommends dual authentication, which requires employees to verify their identity in multiple ways to access sensitive data.
He also recommends exercising an abundance of caution and educating employees about the new risks — phishing scams, malware, and email attachments — that working remotely can pose now that there are “50,000 homes, not one office.”
Offer flexibility wherever possible
With schools closed and household members working in close quarters, many will struggle to maintain their usual productivity. In HP’s survey, 41% of respondents said they’re competing with family members for space to work in the common living spaces and 13% work in their bedrooms. During this difficult period, managers should offer as much flexibility as they can.
“They need to understand that people have a lot of competing demands,” says Keogh. “They may not be able to make certain meeting times, so make sure that flexibility is built in so people can work in this new environment.”
Keogh explains that everyone is going to need some time to adjust, adding that managers can ease the transition by acknowledging and accommodating those challenges. For example, she recommends making meetings shorter and encouraging employees to use the extra time to get outside, and empowering employees to work on a schedule that works for them.
“Everyone’s work and life is melding, so don’t feel bad about finding the right schedule,” she says. For example, Keogh explains that while some will only find time to catch up on responding to emails at night, they can respect their colleagues’ downtime by scheduling messages to go out the next morning.
Communicate and keep staff engaged
Solid, scheduled communication is even more vital for remote workers when there are no water cooler chats or team lunches to offer casual contact. The lack of interaction can take a toll on employees’ well-being, so managers need to go above and beyond to stay in touch and get creative to bring teams together from afar.
“Be personal and make sure you are checking in, and ask about their families,” advises Keogh, adding that it’s equally important to keep spirits high during this difficult period.
In fact, Keogh says some HP staff have scheduled face-to-face hangouts in virtual reality, while members of her team have started doing yoga classes together over video conference. “Get together, in whatever way you can, to find ways of socializing.”
Companywide, HP is updating its portal daily (and even set up a new mobile site) with helpful content to help employees work better together from home, encouragement to find opportunities for online giving and volunteering, fun ideas for entertaining kids at home, and ways to keep up their physical and mental wellbeing.
Though many were unprepared for this sudden transition, employers can support their staff by putting the right tools and policies in place while remaining sensitive to the flexibility and support they may need. Doing so will go a long way in improving the current situation, and might even provide benefits that last well beyond today’s crisis.
“One positive thing coming out of this crisis is that we are accelerating our learning on mobility,” says Keogh. “We are doing work at home we never thought possible. It will change the way we all work in the future.”