Coronavirus: How do companies support employees through this?

COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus is spreading fast. We have to acknowledge that this is a scary and rapid developing situation, with scientists around the world working on vaccines and ways of reducing the spread of the disease. One of the most sensible precautions people can take is to self-isolate and practice social distancing.

For businesses, this means encouraging employees to work from home. Whenever possible, of course. Not every business can. But when it comes to knowledge-based companies, and any work that is done on computers/online, it should be possible to transition to a completely remote operating model.

How do companies go remote?

Over the past decade, companies have experimented in giving employees the option to work remotely. For many, even large corporations that were used to having everyone work in the same offices, this has become normal.

Providing staff have laptops and smartphones, then they can work anywhere. It’s more convenient knowing someone can keep working when looking after children, a relative, or waiting for a delivery, than to lose that productive time.

Beyond the productivity benefits, staff feel happier working for companies that allow for flexible and remote options. Now, however, companies are suddenly being asked to ensure staff can work from home for an undetermined timescale, and all of this is happening against a backdrop of global economic uncertainty.

Understandably, business leaders and managers are going to be feeling shocked, uncertain themselves, and wanting to do the right thing for the company and employees. Difficult decisions are being made. Plans are changing rapidly.

If you are wondering, “how do we go remote?”, we are trying to help companies solve that problem with this and related articles and resources.

Practical steps that need to be taken

Working in an office is a completely different experience to working remotely. In an office, we are surrounded by colleagues and friends. People collaborate spontaneously, and innovate; which is one of the reasons many companies have resisted too much flexible and remote working in the past.

Now, for everyone’s health, remote working is going to be the norm. No one knows how long this needs to continue, but it will likely be many months or more. To cope with this, business leaders need to start thinking months ahead, not weeks, for remote working policies to remain in effect.

Business needs to continue as normal, which means adapting to a world where we aren’t meeting in-person (or this is limited as much as possible), but switching to entirely online ways of working. When it comes to practical steps, the following minimum are recommended:

  • Get an understanding of where/how people are going to be working at home. Not everyone is going to have a spare room to work in. Some will have to manage on a kitchen table, or even a bedroom.
  • Be mindful of what else people might need to do at home, who else could be at home with them, and who they could be looking after (e.g. children, parents);
  • Allow flexibility in routine and schedules so that parents looking after children who are home following school closures (which could become a reality across the world, before Easter, and long before the Summer);
  • Trust and communication are a key part of this transition to flexible remote working. We look at what that means next.

How do we communicate effectively?

Have the right tools in-place: In many cases, this is simply going to be building on what companies already have. Email, messenger channels for real-time communication (e.g. Slack), phone calls, project management tools, and screen-sharing or video calling tools for engaging with clients.

Manage employees based on outcomes, deadlines, and KPIs, not time spent online/working. Outputs matter more than putting in the same number of hours at the office; and practically speaking, flexibility is a necessity, not a luxury.

Over communicate. Be open and transparent. Encourage employees to do the same. Communication, teamwork and morale will break down when people don’t communicate enough. Some will feel isolated. That will impact productivity and mental health. Ensure there are online team sessions, daily whenever possible, and everyone is working towards the same goals, staying focused and feeling supported.

What about mental health?

Coronavirus has created a unique situation around the world.

Millions who would normally be in the office are suddenly being asked to work from home. Economic uncertainty is everywhere. Some sectors will be a lot harder hit than others, which is why governments are taking action to step in and support businesses.

Beyond the economic/financial impacts, people are genuinely afraid. No one wants to catch the virus, and no one wants partners, children, parents, brothers, sisters, family and friends to get the virus. Especially for those who are older, or vulnerable due to other complications, this virus can pose life threatening risks, and a universal vaccine doesn’t yet exist, nor do we have a natural immunity to this.

Consequently, employees’ mental health is going to be affected. Reassurance is needed. As is open communication, so that if there are problems with the company, let them know in advance to allow for mental and practical preparedness.

On a daily basis, working from home creates its own challenges. Working around family will have an impact on productivity, so until everyone settles into a routine, expect some disruption. Not everyone is going to be as productive as normal, to start with. Allow for that. Only start setting stricter deadlines, and help employees with any challenges, once a period of adjustment is over, and only if productivity is noticeably reduced.

Helping employees deal with a sense of isolation is another challenge that remote workers will face. Clear, effective and open communication goes a long way towards solving that. Again, reassurance is going to be needed ongoing, so it’s always better to over-communicate than not say enough.

Beyond these measures, employees might benefit from group or individual coaching or mentoring. Mental health coaches (not therapists, but those who can offer workplace-based support, remotely) and wellbeing apps can be worth investing in, to help productivity and team morale during this unprecedented time of change.

It will take time for employees and managers to adapt to remote working. This is likely to continue for some time. Making sure team members can work remotely, feel supported, and stay productive is the responsibility of managers and business leaders. Let us help with this transition, including picking the right solutions for newly remote teams.