Going remote for the first time? Practical advice for businesses adapting to Coronavirus

Coronavirus is spreading rapidly through the world. As of 16 March 2020, there are over 164,000 confirmed cases, with many more suspected, likely, or undiagnosed, and 6,500 deaths.

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COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus, is scary. It’s throwing the world into unprecedented turmoil and panic. Those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems, are most at risk.

Governments everywhere are taking extreme and rapid measures to contain and delay the spread of this disease. From closing everything but essential supermarkets and pharmacies to suspending travel between countries, including those with shared land borders. Whole countries are in lock down, and many more will take similar steps in the coming days and weeks.

What’s being done to prevent the spread of Coronavirus?

Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is a respiratory illness. It’s in the same family of illnesses as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). Except with Coronavirus, this is a new strain in humans that’s spreading faster than previous illnesses in the same family.

It’s spread through coughing and sneezing, which is why one of the recommended ways to reduce the impact is through self-isolation. Whether or not people have symptoms, the risk of contagion is too high. One person with symptoms, even mild ones, can spread it to hundreds, even thousands. The knock-on effect of that is those who can’t fight it could die, as thousands already have.

Hence the extreme precautions we are seeing in Italy, for example. Ireland took similar steps quickly. Even New York, LA and other U.S. cities are closing restaurants, bars, cinemas and other places where people gather. The majority of major European countries have done the same, and others are considering taking similar actions this week. A significant amount of business and sporting events and contests have been suspended or pushed back until later in the year.

What can businesses do?

Businesses are taking rapid action too. Economic life can’t shut down. Companies can’t simply close. The world and work must continue. But at the same time, it can’t be business as usual.

For companies with offices, where staff usually commute to work, continuing as normal can be too high risk. Commuting is a risk in itself (unless every member of staff drives their own car), and once people are together in an office, there is the chance that one person with symptoms could infect everyone, and their families.

As a result, for every company where this is an option, remote work should be encouraged, even made mandatory. Either staff, for their own safety and that of loved ones, will self-isolate - and therefore need to work from home - or government policy will force this to happen, sooner rather than later. Business leaders need to take action.

Self-isolation should be encouraged, which is why, whenever possible, staff should be working from home, remotely. Remote working greatly reduces the number of potential infection touch points. Not only in the office, where people are interacting, but on the way to work, and in the communities surrounding workplaces.

How do businesses start remote working?

Some companies, such as startups, agencies, and even more established tech companies, have always practiced remote working. Some teams are distributed across the world, with no negative impact on revenues and customer services.

However, for those where this is a new concept, it can be unsettling to be doing this against the backdrop of an unprecedented and unexpected global pandemic. There is a difference between staff working from home occasionally, to a whole company needing to self-isolate and work remotely.

For those needing to get used to this concept, here are a few things to consider (more information to follow in another article):

  • What communication tools do you have in-place, or what can you get up-and-running quickly? In companies where everyone is used to working in the same office, there is going to be some disruption until people get used to remote tools.
  • Where are people going to work? Yes, home should be where everyone works, but who’s working at kitchen tables? Do people have small offices at home that can be used? Who is going to be working alongside partners and others who’ve also been told to self-isolate?
  • Business leaders and managers need to factor in the home working environment and how that might impact productivity.
  • What about children: who might be looking after children while trying to work too?
  • Again, employers need to consider the context of what, how and where people are going to be working when at home, when assigning and managing work and expectations.
  • Communication also needs to adapt to new circumstances. Staff need to have the right tools for the job, they need to be able to communicate internally and with customers as effectively as they would in the office.
  • When it comes to remote working: Is your communication strategy ready? What needs to change? Do your staff have the tools they need to work as effectively? The first and foremost tool to use is the telephone; encourage staff to share their phone numbers with others, or sign up for an instant messaging system with a Voice over IP (VoIP) option, such as Facebook Messenger, Viber, Skype, Telegram or a multitude of other free options, and encourage staff to jump on quick calls with one another for high bandwidth communications, and use instant messaging for other needs. For one-on-one meetings, you can augment telephone calls very easily with a solution like CrankWheel, which is easier than scheduling a whole meeting when all you needed was a quick chat and showing your counterpart something. For larger, scheduled meetings, where it can be good to have video feed of the other participants, you could go with a phone conference, or use a tool such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.
  • What about remote access to internal systems? If most or all of your systems are in the cloud, or you primarily use Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) options such as Dropbox or G Suite, you might not need to do much, but if you have computing systems that run on your intranet only, you might need to have a Virtual Private Network (VPN) set up or have staff granted access to connect through it, so that they can access those internal resources while working from home.
  • Trust, empathy and understanding. Right now, everyone is scared. Anxiety is high. Especially amongst those with elderly parents, grandparents, young children, and anyone with underlying health conditions. Employers need to practice empathy, trust and understanding, to a greater degree than normal, to ensure staff feel supported, productivity stays high, work continues, and customers feel equally looked after.

Coronavirus is causing everyone to worry, even panic, which is understandable. This is a global pandemic, and although countries are taking different responses, we are all affected. Businesses have a duty of care, so to safeguard staff, remote working should be encouraged. In this and other articles, we look at the impact of remote working and how companies can adapt.