On February 25th, the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. released a statement that said Americans should prepare for a “significant disruption” due to the coronavirus COVID-2019. In an additional interview, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools and everyday people to begin preparing.”
For businesses in the US and abroad that can’t afford to simply shut down operations for an unknown period of time, this means switching the majority of your workforce to remote work, and quickly.
This has already happened in China and parts of Asia. Around 60 million people in China have been put under full or partial lockdown since January as the government tried to contain the outbreak. CNN Business dubbed this, “the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.” And as the virus spreads, the size of the experiment scales as well.
To help prepare your organization to go remote, possibly overnight, we’ve collected the most essential steps to take and considerations to weigh.
If you don’t already have some form of remote/flexible work policy, now’s the time to draft one. For the completely uninitiated, we suggest a temporary work from home policy that can be terminated or amended once this situation is over. There are templates like this one from Hubspot you can find online and adapt, but be sure your policy includes these elements:
- A clear purpose: going remote during a pandemic not only ensures the organization’s and employees’ economic security by allowing the business to continue to function, the move is more importantly one of health and safety not just for employees and customers, but for their families and communities as well.
- Eligibility: due to the nature of your business, not every role may be suited to work from home. Clearly define to which departments or business units this policy applies.
- Equipment and supplies considerations: employees may need to purchase additional equipment to work effectively from home (headphones, upgraded internet access, etc.) so determine a maximum budget allowance per employee for these purchases.
- An approval process: define if employees must seek approval to work from home and also how employees may request additional equipment or resources due to any special requirements.
- A reminder of existing policies: remind employees that current policies like harassment, bullying, and cybersecurity will still be expected to be followed regardless of working from home. Xenophobia and race-baiting are already rampant during this outbreak. The first way to protect your employees is to explicitly ban this kind of ignorance and intimidation.
For employees ineligible to work from home, you’ll want to review your existing sick leave policy. The CDC has put together a list of recommendations for employers specifically around the coronavirus. Importantly, this includes accommodating employees who may need to stay home to care and monitor a sick family member.
A remote-first workforce simply requires a unique set of tools to function effectively.
- Access: work with your IT department to ensure secure remote access to any existing files and internal services your employees will need. This may require a VPN (virtual private network) which may also require training your staff on how to install and use said VPN.
- Collaboration: remote work often requires a different set of tools than colocated work. For example, email may be sufficient when you can always stand up, walk thirty feet, and curtail a mounting email thread. But from home, you need instant-messaging services like Slack and collaborative document formats like Google Docs for faster, more effective remote work.
- Transparency: in addition to communication, project planning in a remote based culture requires a tool such as Trello, Asana, Basecamp, Monday.com, etc. to keep everyone aligned on what’s happening and what’s expected of them. This is especially true for complicated and cross-functional deliverables.
Given the nature of needing these tools now, your typical IT procurement process is likely not going to work. Our advice is to think of this period of forced remote work as a trial opportunity for a few of these tools. Ask teams to work together to select a tool to try and then seek their feedback as they begin to use the tool. If you’re completely baffled by the range of choices, we advise starting with Google Docs for real-time document collaboration, Google Hangouts for video calls (it comes with Google Docs), Trello for project management, and Slack for communication.
Policies are fairly easy to write. Systems are somewhat easy to purchase. People, however, are where remote work succeeds or fails because perfecting the remote work experience for individuals is an ongoing process and calibration.
- Acknowledge that change is loss. This is a particularly uncertain time with scary consequences, so remember that this move to remote work isn’t just about the switch to remote work. Yes, do expect your folks to feel a sense of loss just over the move away from the office (even if they initially love the idea) but also expect other feelings to flood their days, especially if they are working from home alone. Check in early and often with your people. We love the concept of a remote-work buddy system, where employees are randomly paired to do a virtual coffee or lunch together. If you’re using Slack, the app Donut will do all the work for you in assigning and connecting buddies.
- Pull your managers aside and do a quick training on leading virtually. First, managers will need to feel confident in any new system they are being asked to use so make time for basic training. Second, managers will need to set clear expectations with their teams about working remotely. Jeff Haden at Inc.com boils it down to three requests: get your work done, be available (during normal working hours), and over-communicate. Third, help managers understand that old rules of thumb can easily translate to digital environments: for example, you’d rarely reprimand an employee in a public setting in the office, so don’t reprimand them in public channels on Slack. Fourth, the strongest urge when managing remotely is to micro-manage—and it’s also the fastest way to erode trust on the team. By sticking to a standard rhythm of status updates and using transparent tools, you shouldn’t need to constantly pester your folks about the status of their work.
- As well, counsel your managers to provide additional support to folks who may be especially vulnerable because of this pandemic. First, recognize that caretakers (especially parents) will have additional challenges working from home if daycares and schools close because of the outbreak. They may be less responsive to requests and may need additional resources (like in-home care) to be productive. Second, people of Asian descent are already experiencing xenophobia as a result of the coronavirus, and it’s critical to both police these kinds of remarks and conversations at work, and to check in with these employees about their experiences outside of work to understand how it is affecting them.
- Tighten your shared rhythms and rituals as a company. One of the hardest parts about working remotely is the loss of shared habits and rituals. Help your people stay connected to your culture and to one another by ensuring there are still activities like status meetings, 1:1’s, brainstorms, and all-hands through your new digital systems. If you’re starting from scratch or want to try a new set of rhythms, do check out our Team Tempo which includes common meeting types and simple checklists.
- Consider new digital norms aligned to your culture. As your interactions become more mediated by digital tools, it’s important to use those tools in a way that still signify your cultural values as an organization. If you want to retain your warm and friendly culture, encourage and model the behavior of sharing animated gifs, for example.
Additional Resources for Leading while Remote
Editor’s Note, 3/15/20: Due to demand, we’ve updated this article with additional articles and tools to help teams go remote.
Guides and Tools for Remote Teams
- Prototypr’s Remote Management Playbook
- Buffer’s 12 Essential Remote Work Tools We’re Using at Buffer Every Day
- Zapier’s The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work
- Gitlab’s Remote Work Resources
- Hanno’s Remote Starter Kit
- Kunik’s crowdsourced Suddenly Remote Workforce
Articles, Studies, and Statistics
- Best Practices for Managing Remote Employees (And What Doesn’t Work)
- Google Research: Working together when we’re not together
- 204 Remote Work Statistics
- Why do remote meetings suck so much?: Use this exercise to calculate a meeting’s caucus score and gain a better understanding for why that score is higher in remote meetings.
- 11 high-impact questions managers should ask remote employees
- 12 Things You Didn’t Plan for When You Started Hiring Remote
- Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams
- How Remote Workers Make Friends
- Remote Work Canvas
This Could Be a Revolution in Remote Work
While no one welcomes the risk of illness or would choose to be forced indoors and into isolation due to a global pandemic, as CNN put it, this is going to lead to the world’s largest experiment in working from home. Many companies that were born remote-first or transitioned to it are vocal advocates of its benefits to both the business and its people. Your organization may find, through this experience, that remote-work is the future of work for you. Once this is all over, we suggest grabbing 10-15 randomly selected employees who participated in remote-work and holding a retrospective on the experience to learn what went well and what could be improved in the future.
Want to be better prepared to lead through uncertainty and manage remote teams? We’re organizing a free remote conference, Change@Work, on Friday, March 20th—sign up now to receive the agenda, or contact us to learn how we can help your company transition to a remote team.