In the past few months, businesses that have been able to remain open have had to operate differently. covid-19 has forced businesses to adapt and for some, incorporate employees working from home (WFH). Adapting and managing through this time may fundamentally change the way many businesses operate.
As we emerge from this situation, many businesses will not be returning to business as usual, but rather transitioning to their new order. This is not a new Star Wars saga; a new order suggests that businesses will adjust their business models and permanently adopt some of the strategies and work practices they undertook during the pandemic. Working from home is a new reality for many, and businesses may want to re-evaluate their position on the practice.
Making it work
For WFH to work, the first step for business owners is to determine which positions do not need to be located in a common work environment and therefore have the potential to work from home, either full time or part time. Not all positions are conducive to WFH. If part of the role is customer reception or if the work requires access to specialized equipment that’s available only at the business’s premises (like in a manufacturing facility), the worker needs to be physically at the workplace. But for many roles, WFH at least part of the time is a newly confirmed possibility. Work is accomplished, but in a different way.
The second step is having the required infrastructure. Employees will need laptops and mobile devices, and internet and data plans that support the required connectivity and productivity. Business owners will need to determine whether they will pay for the required equipment and technology or whether employees will be responsible for providing the tools and connections. A further consideration is ensuring that the required IT security measures are in place for any employees WFH. For most businesses, WFH is not a right, it is a privilege. While many employees may ask to work from home, the ultimate decision lies with the business owner and it needs to make sense for the business.
Changes to HR strategies and management models
Now may be a good time to revisit job profiles or descriptions. Does anything need to be revised? Just because an employee is WFH doesn’t necessarily mean the role has changed. But if processes have been adjusted or if certain tasks are no longer required, it may make sense to revise the job profile accordingly.
The WFH conversation also needs to address flexibility and core hours. Core hours are times when all employees, even those WFH, must be present in the office. Some businesses may require employees to collaborate on projects and may want to establish core hours. These times may be a few hours per week spread over certain days – for example, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings from 9:00 to 12:00 – or they may be concentrated in one day each week. However they are structured, core hours facilitate in-person meetings and collaboration across teams.
Business owners and employees will also need to spend some time defining expectations around availability. Employees may require uninterrupted time to complete work, and they need to inform their supervisors and teams of the times they are not readily available by email, chat, or phone.
Many businesses have not previously encouraged or supported WFH because they fear the loss of employee productivity. Managing people who work from home is not easy – it requires skill. Managers who lean toward micro-managing will need to adjust. Without being able to observe tasks being completed, the focus needs to shift to outcomes. This can be very liberating for employees. Set the goals, be available to support or coach as required, and let employees be responsible for their work and own their results. WFH is much more fluid than working in the office and managers need to trust that their employees will do their best to get their work done.
The best way to maintain expected productivity levels is to ensure managers continue to manage their teams. Effective managers can manage employees whether they are in the office or halfway around the world. They need to communicate expectations clearly, be available when needed to help and guide employees, and allow workers to take responsibility for their tasks and their output. For some employees, WFH allows them to produce their best work.
Many business owners equate hours in the office with productivity, but not all hours in the office are productive. A better way is to manage to results, rather than time spent working. If employee productivity is your goal, ensure employees know what is expected of them and when, and then let them choose how and when to accomplish it. WFH allows more flexibility. Some employees may accomplish the most first thing in the morning; others may find that they work best at night, after the kids are in bed. Let employees structure their schedule to accommodate work and family needs.
A shift in communication methods
Business owners also need to establish a regular cadence for communication – when organizational updates are to be provided, when team meetings happen, and when one-on-one meetings will occur. Leaders need to be visible and accessible to employees WFH. Managers need to let employees know when they are available and the best way to contact them. Encourage texting, calling, and quickly jumping on a virtual call to get an issue sorted out. Less formal scheduled contact and more immediate responses can help employees to remain productive. Managers also need to check in on employees WFH, not just on their work goals and progress, but to connect on a human level with how they are doing and to offer any assistance required.
Many people dislike meetings. Some see them as an interruption to their work or a necessary evil. When employees are not in the same location, however, meetings are a great way to ensure the lines of communication remain open. Think of them as opportunities to connect and communicate.
In the absence of communication, employees will start to create their own story. Your role as a manager is to keep your employees informed on business and team goals and progress toward those goals. Employees need to feel connected and to know their work is important to achieving team and organizational objectives.
Managers also need to encourage dialogue and contributions from everyone in virtual meetings. Ensure everyone has a chance to participate. Some people are very comfortable speaking in a group, whether in a meeting room or in a virtual meeting. Others are not. Encourage those who have not spoken to contribute.
Business owners should encourage peer-to-peer interaction. Just as when we’re working in the same location, organic communication happens when employees meet up in the coffee room or pop into someone’s office for a quick chat. Encourage this type of interaction via online channels to allow employees to connect and talk about things other than work, which helps to build camaraderie and trust among co-workers, even while working remotely. Your company culture is maintained through both formal and informal connections.
Remote work has been around for a long time. With the technology tools available, many employees are not only working from home, but are continuing to be productive and contributing to achieving business results.
First published in the June 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.