Right now, it’s important to understand how to support a workforce that is suddenly entirely remote. As most states now have shelter-in-place or stay-at-home mandates, companies scrambled to get ready to quickly support a dispersed employee base. Employees who haven’t worked remotely before struggled to adapt to working in isolation, creating spaces in which to work productively, and are looking to leadership for guidance.
First, these are guidelines that can be applied to any situation in which we must support remote employees, but we have to recognize that working from home in a time of crisis is not the same thing as working from home as a part of your job. Under normal circumstances, remote employees will have home offices, access to childcare, and be able to follow a traditional schedule and communication plan.
Working from home while also adhering to stay at home mandates means that your employees with children will not have childcare. Even if you have employees who regularly work from home, this is not normal for them either. Typically, remote workers have developed habits that allow them to focus on work for a set amount of time, but they socialize and attend events outside of work hours. As weeks pass, this level of isolation can be difficult for even the diehard introverts.
On top of isolation and working while making sure children are occupied with online schooling, many employees may also be looking after vulnerable or sick relatives, friends, or neighbors. This means that the general guidelines for managing remote employees have changed dramatically. As HR leaders, our employees, managers and executives look to us for support during challenging times, and this is likely one of the most challenging most of us will experience in our careers.
Here, we’ll go over some tips and recommendations for supporting your employees who are working remotely during a crisis.
Depending on your industry, you might be asking employees who have never worked remotely to do so, and they’re going to need your support (and help from IT). If you’re going to use an existing channel for communication, don’t assume everyone is using it. If your communication platform is something like Microsoft Teams, make sure every employee is signed up and has guidance on video conferencing, setting up channels, how to schedule video conference meetings, and team structure. The same goes for Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and so on.
Not having employees on-site during the same hours of work can make communication more difficult, particular in team- and relationship-building. Touch base regularly with your team leaders and managers and provide them with guidance on communicating with their teams. Any regularly scheduled in-office meetings like weekly one-on-ones should continue through video conferencing. It’s also a good idea for managers to schedule a brief (30 minute) team meeting daily to review tasks (or just commiserate). Working from home doesn’t mean we drop best practices for productivity.
Set up channels for general and random (non-work-related) chats. Help your company managers understand that these channels are just as important as work-related chats, as watercooler conversation is part of socializing at work and this is the closest thing we have to doing that right now. Check in with people even if you don’t have a work-related reason to do so. Social distancing is harder for some people than others, and using a chat just to say hello and see how they’re doing can be really meaningful.
If your company is accustomed to celebrating team member birthdays, don’t put that on hold. One company manager we spoke to said she found a local bakery that had just begun offering delivery because they had to close its doors to customer pick up. She scheduled cookie basket deliveries for her team members to arrive at their homes on their birthdays and started a GIF chain in their random Slack channel to wish them a happy one.
When people work from home, even during normal times, they can feel left out or unseen. Encourage your team leaders and managers to share employee achievements on a general work channel so the entire company can share in celebrating their win. If you’re not already using performance management software like 15Five, Bonusly or Kudos, it might be a good time to start. Along with weekly updates, your employees can give each other virtual high fives that are visible to other team members.
There’s a lot of good information out there (especially recently) for remote employees on working from home during a crisis. Benedikt Lehnert of Microsoft created a guide for remote workers: OMG I’m working remotely, now what?!. Wired recently published How to Work From Home Without Losing Your Mind. Alice Goldfuss wrote a post based on her years of experience working from home called Working in the Time of Corona that has a lot of empathy and good tips. Share these resources with your employees, whether they have experience working from home or not.
If your workforce is suddenly working from home, you’re likely in the same time zone. There’s no excuse to not have a “virtual open door” policy so that your managers and company leaders are available during remote employees’ working hours. Encourage conversations outside of email, reach outs, setting status messages in your communication platform to show availability. If there was ever a time for your company leaders to reinforce their open-door policy, it’s now. Even though you’re doing your job as HR leadership by regularly updating your entire company with the information they need to know, your company leaders can improve morale by showing employees that they’re right there with them, working at home, struggling with kids in the background, juggling work and home life in a time that is hard for everyone.
As days turn into weeks that will likely turn into months, it’s important to find ways to help your managers keep their teams engaged. We’ve seen a few companies have “spirit week” for their daily video conferences, during which each day has a theme. It sounds like a small thing, but scheduling “hat day” or “80s day” (or “best accessory,” “school picture day”) could be exactly what makes every day stop feeling like the same one. If you or your team has started asking “is it Tuesday? Wednesday?” because they’re not getting the usual cues while social distancing, knowing that Wednesday is “sports team day” matters. Other ideas: Friday afternoon all-hands happy hour, video conference karaoke, set up a channel on your platform to share quarantine-themed Spotify or Apple Music playlists.
The bottom line: This sucks, and it sucks for everyone. No one needs to be reminded that they’re lucky to still have a job and to be able to work from home. What they do need is reassurance, empathy, and to know that they’re not going through it alone.
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