Remote working has been in the news recently. Many companies in countries with outbreaks of Covid 19, caused by the Coronavirus Sars-Cov-2, have asked their employees to work from home. Putting a remote-work plan in place now could help your organisation to cope with challenging situations, whether that’s illness, transport strikes or bad weather.
Here’s how to prepare your team to go remote.
by Lucy Elkin, Founder and Director of myworkhive Ltd, a social enterprise which specialises in remote working
Encouraging your staff to work from home might become necessary overnight if you’re in an area that is quarantined, or with lots of people off sick. Even if the current spread of Coronavirus is swiftly brought under control (as we all hope it will be), any work you do now to get your organisation ‘remote ready’ won’t be a waste. You can dust off your plans next time there’s a bad flu season or some other issue that makes it tough for your team to get to work – such as heavy snow, a transport strike or flooding.
Moving your team to remote working isn’t too difficult, but there are a number of practical issues and ways of working that it’s good to put in place ahead of time. Large companies are likely to have covered a lot of this already. But for smaller employers, it can be a real challenge to do in a hurry, particularly if remote work isn’t something you’re already familiar with. We’ve put together our key tips and ideas to help you make the move as smoothly as possible.
1. Take time to review roles and plan tasks
It’s much easier to plan calmly, before there’s a real need. Take a look at your team now to see which roles could transfer to remote working most easily. Any tasks that are mainly desk-based will often transfer well to working from home. Roles that are more challenging to move include those that depend on lots of in-office resources (such as paper files, or particular software that employees might not have on their home computers.) Roles that require lots of face-to-face meetings with customers or clients can also be tricky.
For each role or team function, it’s worth considering now how you could support this work to be done remotely, even if it’s just for a short time. For example, staff who usually spend a lot of time meeting with clients might need to move to using video calls instead. If there are roles that really doesn’t translate well to working from home, with a bit of thought you might be able to identify other support tasks that team member could do from home – such as following up leads from your CRM, writing reports or presentations, cleaning up data, carrying out a research project, planning a training workshop, or creating new marketing materials – just to give a few examples.
In the UK, the workplace advisory agency ACAS suggest that it’s good practice to have a policy specifically for staff who work from home. ACAS has a detailed example of a work-from-home policy on their website that you could adapt (check it out on this page).
If you’re already in a crisis situation, you could draft a short version that includes the key issues for your organisation. That might include practical questions, such as who covers insurance for equipment being used at home. Or who pays for work-related phone calls. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s best to get something put in writing. Review it with your team to make sure everyone know’s the rules, to prevent problems cropping up later.
When you’re working together remotely, you can’t just pop over to someone’s desk to take a look at their screen. You’ll need other ways to work together and collaborate. Permanent remote teams tend to rely heavily on a suite of software tools to help them get things done. The good news is that you don’t need to spend much (if anything) to get a modest-sized remote team up-and-running.
There are a few areas to consider:
File sharing: If you’re working together on a document or presentation, endlessly emailing versions around to each other soon gets cumbersome. Tools like Google Docs and Drop Box are free (at a basic level), and let you all work on the same document. You can leave comments and questions for each other, see each others’ revisions and accept changes.
Project and task management: Your team may already have preferred tools for this, but if not, many remote teams rely on tools such as Trello or Asana to track workflows and see what everyone is working on. You can upload comments or documents, delegate by sharing tasks, and see how projects are progressing. Most of these tools have a free trial period or free options.
Brainstorming and designing: For teams that need to get creative and work more visually or brainstorm together, there are a number of good virtual whiteboard apps that let you share screens or work on the same virtual whiteboard, including:
– Microsoft Whiteboard
– Google’s Jambox
– Whiteboard Fox
For more, check out Zapier’s review of the best online whiteboards for remote teams. If you don’t need full whiteboard capabilities, but just want to share your screen with colleagues to show them something, some video conferencing tools like Zoom allow you to do that with a simple ‘share screen’ button.
4. Figure out how to communicate as a team
When you move to working from home, using email and the phone to replace all your day-to-day communication with colleagues can feel really clunky. Luckily, there are lots of good tools to help remote teams communicate in a more natural way, that feel a little more similar to the informal discussions and chat that you might normally have in the office.
Slack is one popular tool used by lots of remote teams. On Slack, you can chat with team members via text, using emojis and images so it feels a bit like using social media. ‘Slacking’ someone feels much more informal – a bit like dropping by someone’s desk to chat, compared with sending an email. And unlike office chat, in Slack you can turn off notifications when you want to work undisturbed. It can be used for more serious work discussions too, with channels for different topics or teams.
Video calls are also preferable to phone calls for any in-depth discussion. Being able to see facial expressions and body language can make communication much easier, and help to avoid misunderstandings – particularly in times of stress.
If you have a small team, there are lots of free or low-cost video conferencing options – including Zoom, Whereby, Skype and Google Hangouts. Bandwidth and video quality can be more patchy on the free versions, but may be good enough to get your team through a few days. If you have a large team – or if you find the video quality is too low – you might need to move to a paid plan. Most plans offer monthly subscriptions, so you don’t need to lock yourself into a long contract.
5. Sort out security and data protection
If everyone is suddenly working from home, you’ll have some security issues to consider, particularly if people are using their own personal devices, rather than company laptops and phones. For example, before you all start sharing documents, check that everyone has up-to-date virus protection software installed on the devices they are using.
Data security and protection are key issues to plan for, too. If team members are taking paperwork with them that contains personal data such as contact details, it should be stored somewhere safe (such as a locked filing cabinet), not left lying around at home, in order to meet General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules in the European Union and UK. Similarly, if team members are accessing clients’ or customers’ personal data on their computers, you’ll need to think through how to keep that secure. As a minimum, you’ll need to remind team members to password protect their devices, and not to leave them lying around at home.
6. Don’t forget health and safety for home working staff
Employers are still responsible for the health and safety of staff that they have asked to work from home. If you need to move lots of people to remote working quickly, carrying out lots of home health and safety assessments probably isn’t realistic (and might not be possible in some situations, such as a quarantine, for example.)
Instead, you could develop Health and Safety At Home checklist for employees to work through (with support from their line manager or your HR team). Include reminders of what to look out for – such as trip hazards from wires or fire risk from overloaded plug sockets. If you have time, you could put together a short video to guide staff through the process.
7. Don’t forget leadership and morale – the glue that makes it all work
In normal circumstances, moving to remote working is often welcomed as a perk by staff. Studies have shown that, done well, remote working can improve employee wellbeing, by reducing the time spent on long commutes, and making it easier to balance work and family roles. However, in an emergency situation, people may not have asked to work from home or had much chance to plan for it. In this case, there are a number of steps team leaders can take to ease the transition:
Pro-remote leadership: If line managers and team leaders are confident and upbeat about the switch to remote working, that will help other team members embrace the change.
It can help to give some training (or at least some pointers) to line managers who may not be used to managing people from a distance. One of the key things managers can do is trust their teams. Let go of worries about whether staff are wasting time at home. Remote managers tend to focus on outputs and results, not hours worked. Make sure everyone has clear objectives, then let them get on with it. As long as team members are sending in some good work and projects are still moving along nicely, does it really matter if they are working at slightly unusual hours, or taking some time out here and there to fit in family tasks?
Keep in touch: It’s also a good idea for team leaders to be proactive about staying in touch. Some people tend to feel isolated and ‘out of the loop’ quite quickly if they are not used to remote working. Don’t leave someone working home alone all week before you check in to see how they’re getting on. Many remote teams have regular, daily video calls (sometimes called ‘standups’) to let each other know what they’re working on. Encouraging everyone to post regular short updates and comments on tools like Slack can also help people feel connected through the day. And video calls don’t have to be just for work. Video coffee breaks or lunches together can help provide some more relaxed, social time. (If you’ve looking for a long-term solution to help remote workers avoid isolation, myworkhive runs a free, virtual coworking community, bringing together a global group of people who all work remotely.)
Hopefully these tips will help your team embrace the move to working from home, whatever the situation. Even if you don’t need remote working to cope with an emergency, it can offer significant business benefits, from cutting office costs to improving staff retention. Numerous surveys show that staff often value remote working highly. For example, one survey by Owl Labs found that around one third of staff would be happy to have a pay cut if it meant they could work from home regularly. In the same survey, 71% of remote workers said they were happy in their jobs, compared with just 55% of on-site staff. (Additional statistics on remote working can be found on this Career Wiki page.) So for many reasons, it might be time to consider taking your team remote.
If you’d like more information, get in touch with Lucy Elkin, myworkhive’s Director. Or check out myworkhive’s free Guide To Remote Teams, which has lots more articles to help you hire and manage happy and productive home-based staff.