With the business community hyper-focused on the spread of COVID-19 and the potential impact it will have on business, the conversation has turned to focus on remote work – specifically “is my business set up to run efficiently if all of my employees are remote?”
This is no longer theoretical: as a precaution (and harbinger for other major cities), entire office buildings have been closed in Australia and Hong Kong when single workers presented with COVID-19 symptoms. With more than 8,000 people working in the iconic One World Trade Center in New York City the contagion risk is high.
Putting a plan in place for a fully remote workforce is not a nice to have but a critical piece of your Business Preparedness Continuity Plan. Some core elements for successful remote working are outlined below.
In-Person Meetings and Travel
The most immediate action is making a business decision on in person meetings and travel.
Companies and conference organizers around the world are proactively acting to help prevent the spread of infection with the cancelation, postponement or adjustment of large-scale events. Similarly, leading health and government organizations recommend local in-person meetings of small groups be changed to video conferences where possible, and if not, any person who is feeling unwell should opt out of the meeting.
Presently there are varying levels of warnings for travel to countries where there are current outbreaks. We recommend tracking the warnings (currently ranging from Level 2: Exercise Increase Caution to Level 4: Do Not Travel) issued by The US State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are currently no official restrictions placed on domestic US travel however many businesses have put in place a halt to non-essential travel.
So, what constitutes a non-essential meeting or travel? It’s a challenge to roll out appropriate processes and policies and executives find that it’s easiest to implement blanket rules that all employees have to abide by, with no exceptions. It is important to remember that “essential” can be subjective – the junior sales rep will believe that a hard-to-schedule prospect meeting is critical to achieving quota, or the PR person’s coffee-meeting with a reporter is essential to PR success.
Essential travel should only be travel that will have a material and immediate impact to the ongoing viability of the company. Appoint a single decision maker within the executive team, ideally an EVP or C-level exec, to make sure that all work travel is approved centrally. Communicate the decision firmly to all employees and reiterate it through multiple channels to ensure all employees have ample opportunity to receive the information. Companies with more than 1,000 employees may want to rollout an electronic form to track employees’ receipt of information.
Remote Work Rollout
For years, remote work has been on the rise. This is typically limited to people who can be more autonomous in their roles (e.g., sales reps, consultants, software engineers, analysts). If everyone needs to work from home, this is an order of magnitude that has not yet been tested by most businesses. It’s completely do-able (for example, Insight Partners’ portfolio companies, Automattic (Wordpress) and TaxJar have been remote from inception), but most companies have not yet set up operations, back office and administrative employees to work remotely.
Preparedness starts with the right technology for remote work.
There is an increasing array of sophisticated technologies to meet the productivity needs of remote employees and the security requirements of the business. Many business applications are in the cloud, and easily accessible – in fact, software’s move to the cloud has a strong foundation that supports the feasibility of remote work.
As soon as possible, companies need to deploy remote capability technologies to all employees – it will take time for IT teams to provide access across the organization and ensure all staff are comfortable using the hardware and applications.
- Laptops for all Employees: Many businesses use a mix of laptops and desktops; laptops need to be available for all staff should they be required to work from home during quarantine or office closures. While many employees have personal laptops and phones, it should not be expected that they use these for their work. Corporate issued devices ensure the appropriate level of security and document control.
- Videoconferencing and Chat Software: A core benefit of office-based work is the face time that people get with one another and the ease of having a quick conversation to move work along efficiently. Communication software such as videoconferencing or chat allow team members to work together as if they are in the same office. Many teams use a variety of tools, and now is the time to streamline the software solutions so that they are company-wide versus team-specific. This will decrease the chances of employees not having access to necessary conversations or meetings if they are working remotely. Additionally, IT needs to ensure that all plug-ins and apps are installed and integrated on employee laptops to make the transition to work from home far smoother – as a quick example, being able to add a video conferencing link directly from a calendar invite makes it seamless to set up a “face to face” meeting amongst colleagues.
- File Sharing Platforms: Secure file sharing and data access is critical to enable employees to work with the same resources as they would in the office. Ensure that your VPN network is set up to allow all employees to log on from their own internet connection without security protocols blocking access. For companies with highly confidential materials, solutions that have electronic signing, locked PDFs, activity time stamps and secure messaging are required.
- Project Management and Time Tracking Tools: One of the biggest concerns of managers and employees is being able to stay on top of tasks, work efficiently and synchronize with other team members. Project management tools increase visibility into the workload of others and increase transparency through clearly mapped milestones and scheduled check-ins for ongoing work. Project management and time tracking software helps managers handle the prioritization of projects while real time analytics will help managers assess the performance and productivity of individual employees who are working remotely.
Communicating Remote Work and Travel Bans to Staff
The most important part of setting up remote work protocols is ensuring there are clear guidelines and policies in place, and these are explicitly communicated. Managers should be tasked with monitoring adherence to rules and protocols. For example, setting clear expectations for work hours and output, and keeping employees accountable for deadlines.
Employees who work remotely often enjoy the flexibility it affords them – mid morning gym sessions or running errands during the day – however if entire teams are required to work remotely it is important that there is some uniformity in their work day to minimize delays for meetings or approvals.
Remote work calls for high EQ from leaders. When communicating travel bans or forced meeting cancelations it is important to do so compassionately, particularly for quota carrying sales employees who will likely fear and feel the impact of these changes. For these employees we recommend that managers:
- Reiterate that prospects and clients are also experiencing the impact of COVID-19 and will be understanding of any postponements or cancellations.
- Encourage people to hold meetings via video conferencing software to still get the experience of an in-person meeting.
- Guide reps to “get creative” with their sales tactics. Many people will be stuck at home or sticking close to their office – send them an interesting podcast or record your musings in a video for them to watch in their own time. Salespeople can still stay front-of-mind even if they aren’t standing in front of a prospect.
- If you are holding reps to their sales targets offer additional resources, widen their targets or pool team quotas to decrease the potential impact on bonuses if sales targets take a hit. If this is the case, the company’s business plan will be adjusted to reflect the environment, and sales teams will be adjusted as well.
5 Tips for Managers of Remote Teams
Remote management is different than in-person management, not least of which is the lost ability for casual check-ins, quick oversight, and face-to-face feedback.
- Lead by Example: Many people will have different ideas and expectations about what remote work will be like, but they will be looking to their managers to set the flow and parameters. If you’ve set office hours as 9am – 6pm, make sure you are visibly online at that time.
- Encourage “Chat”: Work can be challenging, deadlines can be stressful, but what makes teams gel and be able to overcome high pressure situations is camaraderie and rapport. The fastest way to build that is encouraging teams to “chat” and have banter with one another on topics outside of the task at hand. As a leader you can encourage more introverted team members to remain engaged through learning about them on a personal level – what they like, do for fun, shows they watch – and using that knowledge to bring them into group chats.
- Push for Video: In-person meetings might be cancelled, but face time still matters. Using video for team meetings allows you to pick up on non-verbal cues and address them accordingly. Some employees like to work from coffee shops or in their pajamas so will elect not to use video. We recommend letting the team members know ahead of a call that they are expected to join using video and to manage their situation to accommodate that.
- Set Longer or More Frequent 1:1s (and Never Cancel!): It’s important to remember that 1:1s are more than just a status update. Proper planning and an agenda shared ahead of the meeting will ensure that you are able to dig below surface level and provide the type of guidance employees will derive value from. Importantly never cancel a 1:1. When people are working remotely it is easier to feel distant from leadership and the company, if a manager cancels a 1:1 employees can feel like their time is not valued and can quickly become disengaged.
- Company Culture Becomes Even More Critical When Remote: Even if remote work occurs for a short period of time it is important to find ways to infuse the company culture into your remote workforce. Do you normally have town hall meetings on Fridays? Standups every other day at 9am? Do the team’s fitness fanatics do regular workouts together? Whatever you do in the office, find ways to keep those moments alive digitally. Start a group chat for the workout buffs, host video standups, send team members home with branded swag to keep the company front and center as they continue to “turn up” every day.
Remote work is not a new thing for many companies; however, several organizations are rolling out this wholesale on an expedited timeline given COVID-19 concerns. Once the technology infrastructure is in place, a good business continuity plan is to “dry run” remote work: practice having groups of employees work from home to test the tech, processes and protocols in a controlled fashion. This is an opportunity to streamline work processes, drive up team collaboration, improve reporting, and benefit from the thinking time afforded to people who are no longer on the road.
A quick side note: in 1665, Cambridge University closed because of the bubonic plague. As a result Isaac Newton had to work from home and during that time he discovered his Law of Universal Gravitation. #Winning #GlassHalfFull
Insight Partners uses many collaboration, security, project management, file sharing, video conferencing and team management tools. Please reach out for additional support in setting up remote work within your organization or recommendations on business software applications.
*Note the majority of resources discuss ongoing remote work structures and few have been developed with COVID-19 and rapid action in mind