Businesses across industries are implementing work-from-home policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shift has come quickly for many business owners and leaders who need to consider communication, technology and compliance, among other things.
In a typical scenario, planning could take months but businesses no longer have that option. Instead, you may find yourself needing to create an official remote working policy while your employees have already begun working from home.
1. Prepare your workforce
Start by figuring out which roles can be remote, either partially or completely. This will vary widely based on the type of business.
Then, you’ll need to know if the employees in those roles have the basic technology required, such as high-speed internet and a home computer if you’re not able to issue corporate laptops. Keep in mind that you may need to pay to upgrade some employees' internet or mobile plans, or provide an additional expense for technology.
Changing their workplace from an office setting can be disorienting for employees who’ve never done it before.
“Give employees a checklist for how to set up their own home office,” recommends HR specialist Chad Sorenson, president of Adaptive HR Solutions.
The checklist should include tips such as how to identify the best location for a workspace and how to prepare your family to minimise interruptions.
2. Set expectations
A move to working from home changes more than just the physical environment. It also changes how employees do their work and communicate.
“The biggest key to success is communication and setting expectations," says Sorensen. "Have a conversation and put it in writing, whether it is via email or a document you've outlined."
Expectations should include things like:
- How often employees are expected to check-in and how
- What they should be communicating—whether that should be daily updates, reports about achieved goals or completed projects, or challenges encountered
- What changes you're making from normal operations or day-to-day activities
- What work still needs to be done or which services provided to clients, despite the changes
Prepare to adjust your expectations and to give your employees some leeway. Not only are employees working in an unfamiliar environment, but some tasks may take longer. For example, providing daily updates requires both team members and managers to spend more time reading and writing emails.
"We are expecting a small reduction in productivity due to the fact of being home around family and other distractions," says David Batchelor, co-founder and president of communications business DialMyCalls.
He also advises involving employees in coming up with a plan that will work for everyone. "Do not dictate a plan you think works—ask for feedback," he says.
3. Create communication procedures
Communication platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams and videoconferencing apps like Zoom and Skype are some of the tools employees may need to communicate and collaborate remotely. Compared to asynchronous email, a major benefit of platforms like these is that they allow for real-time communication — a makeshift replacement for face-to-face meetings.
Recognise that there will be limitations, however, as not everyone has the internet bandwidth for video calls or a webcam on their home computer.
With employees working from home, there will inevitably be other distractions too but regular contact can help to keep things running smoothly.
"Intentional touch-bases across teams ensure projects stay on track," says Asher Primrose, human resources director for the LaCalle Group. At its online continuing education business Continued, for example, managers have regularly scheduled calls with direct reports to review projects and goals.
4. Provide tools
Other tools to consider include project-management platforms such as Monday.com, Asana and Basecamp; and online-sharing apps such as Google Suite and Microsoft SharePoint—as well as tools for communicating with clients.
Preparations for conducting remote meetings and working from home can take as little as a few hours. At law firm Hoeslcher Gebbia Cepeda, this included problem-solving scenarios, downloading videoconferencing apps on laptops and testing the technology in a mock meeting.
To accommodate different client preferences, the firm downloaded and tested several videoconferencing apps on each of the 12 laptops that lawyers and support staff will take home.
“The advantage of being a small business is that we can adapt” says Joseph Hoeslcher, the firm’s managing partner. “We wanted to cover the bases by downloading the most popular tools.”
5. Consider data privacy and security
Working outside of the corporate IT infrastructure has implications for data security, especially if you're not able to provide company laptops.
"Remote-access solutions and internet-facing servers should be patched and secured with two-factor or multi-factor authentication, with connections made through a virtual private network (VPN)," advises Christian Mairoll, CEO of cybersecurity company Emsisoft.
For businesses that can't provide devices for working at home, he recommends ensuring that the employee's home device has patched versions of the most recent operating system and software.
"It wouldn't be good to have an employee processing sensitive data and accessing the company network using an outdated operating system like Windows XP that's shared with kids who surf the web" he says.
In those types of cases, consider alternatives. Ask these questions:
- Are employees cross-trained, allowing them to swap roles temporarily so only those with secure devices handle sensitive data?
- If some employees have corporate laptops as well as more secure home computers, could they temporarily "loan" their company-owned devices to others?
- Could the employee take home the entire computer workstation, if necessary?
- Could the employee work from home on limited tasks, and either defer anything related to sensitive data to a team member, postpone the task if it is not critical, or work at the office for part of the time to handle it?
Additionally, Mairoll notes that it is best practice to use a secure, cloud-based backup to store any sensitive files. If that is not an option, require the employee to encrypt the personal device, he recommends.
6. Maintain compliance
Compliance doesn't stop in extraordinary circumstances. Newly developed work-from-home policies need to provide flexibility, but they also need to be uniform.
"You may have to do some things on the fly, but as you make decisions, you need to do it equitably across the organisation,” says Sorenson. “Each manager can't decide independently what do with their employees.”
He suggests managers track their decisions by writing a memo to yourself as to why you did what you did. If someone questions that decision down the road, you then have a record of why.
7. Stay flexible
Many employees will have young children at home because schools and nurseries are closed. Expect to hear—or see—children in the background during meetings, and remember that family distractions will take a bite out of productivity.
But just as important, put yourself in the employees' shoes, says Teresa Douglas, a mother of two kids, ages 9 and 10, who works remotely as operations and people manager for Kaplan Test Prep.
"Ask how you can help them get their work done during this trying time," says Douglas. "Tell them that you know they're doing the best they can. That will go a long way in helping your team stay productive."
8. Create trust and accountability
Business leaders who are new to working from home may not realise that the culture in a remote environment is different not only because you're communicating and collaborating virtually. Remote work relies on trust and accountability.
"Managers must set clear expectations and trust their team members to get their job done," says the LaCalle Group’s Primrose. "The most important aspect of virtual work is establishing a culture of trust."
By considering these issues when developing your new policy – and taking a moment to understand the impact on employees and customer relationships – businesses can quickly develop a work-from-home policy to see them through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Healthy practices for the short-term are likely to translate into healthy practices for the longer term; and with the input of employees and clients, it’s an approach that has engagement baked in from the start.