A few months ago, 2020 was predicted to be the “year of remote work.” But even the most optimistic telecommuting advocates never anticipated the launch of the world’s largest work-from-home experiment before the end of the first quarter.
Due to using telemedicine to treat patients under quarantine to protecting economic development, the virtual business world has unusually high confidence in outbreak control and seems to be hailing remote work as the hero here to rescue the world from the economic repercussions of coronavirus. There is no doubt that remote work has reached an unprecedented tipping point, but it may not be tipping in the direction you think.
The “world’s largest work-from-home” experiment could have long-term economic ripple effects.
According to a recent survey by 8×8 at the end of February, 44% of consumers with full-time jobs have already seen coronavirus impact the way they do business, 55% have canceled travel plans and are having fewer in-person meetings, and 40% are increasing their use of video conferencing. Vikram Verma, CEO of the cloud communications company, gives this insight: “We are witnessing a fundamental change in the role of boards and business continuity — the ability to work from any location will be the audit committee topic of 2020. Just like data security audits and assessments, 2020 will be about assessing readiness and resilience in the way that businesses ensure continuity during a contingency period, without any impact such as hurting productivity or engagement.”
“2020 will be about assessing readiness and resilience in the way that businesses ensure continuity during a contingency period, without any impact such as hurting productivity or engagement.”
All of this is noteworthy, of course, but here’s the real kicker: 90% of survey respondents at the time said they are either confident or very confident that they will remain productive if asked to work remotely as a result of a crisis. Is that true? Will our economy not miss a beat with this global workplace shift? Ironically, remote work advocates don’t think so.
In fact, all of this unexpected remote work adoption has telecommuting experts concerned instead of celebrating. In a recent guide about what not to do when implementing remote, virtual team veteran GitLab warned, “What is happening en masse related to Coronavirus is largely a temporary work-from-home phenomenon, where organizations are not putting remote work ideals into place, as they expect to eventually require their team members to resume commuting into an office. Merely transferring planned office meetings to virtual meetings misses an opportunity to answer a fundamental question: is there a better way to work than to have a meeting in the first place?”
The change management process of “going remote” may seem as simple, but if not managed properly can result in legal concerns. Even worse, the ripple effects of going back to the office could be even worse, since remote work policy retractions are proven to negatively affect workforce retention and productivity. If the millions of businesses that are all adopting work from home models simultaneously return to the office, the job market, international trade, and corporate sustainability could all crash.
It seems that this seemingly-glorious bandaid solution for health crisis prevention may be setting the stage for an even larger economic disaster in the future.
So, how do we protect our workers and our economy during the era of coronavirus? Encouraging workers to telecommute is inevitable, but there is a difference between being at home during work hours, and working remotely in a way that maintains (or enhances) business operations.
There is a difference between being at home during work hours, and working remotely in a way that maintains (or enhances) business operations.
Here are three things that remote work experts from around the world advise businesses to do in order to effectively and sustainably implement a work-from-home policy:
Do know your case for change.
As compelling as coronavirus may feel, workforce illness is not a business case; and massive corporate decisions must be made on evidence, not emotions. So, to make an educated and intentional decision about how telecommuting will impact your business, research the processes and understand the benefits that you can expect by making the change. Companies like Global Workplace Analytics can help you estimate your return on investment. (Spoiler alert: the average is $11,000 USD per part-time worker.)
Do write a policy
“The most common and dangerous mistake that businesses make when going remote is not creating a formal agreement,” warns Sunny Zeimer, COO of Distribute, a remote work change management and consulting firm. “A written policy may seem superfluous, but it’s the critical component to ensuring all parties know how to safely and sustainably make the change from physical to virtual. Whether you’re letting 1 or 1,000 people work offsite, this document is likely to make or break your success.” To help companies get started, the firm offers a free remote policy checklist that can be supplemented with custom consulting.
Do find a mentor
To prevent any dreaded remote work isolation and ease the transition to virtual, Megan Dilley, Director of the Remote Work Association, advises new-to-remote professionals to connect with more experienced peers as soon as possible to help guide you through the new world of virtual productivity. “When you first go remote, you just don’t know what you don’t know. You might feel like a pro because you’ve worked from home for a few years, but have you ever thought about concerns like worksite safety, career stagnancy, or imposter syndrome? Probably not. A peer or coach can help you learn lessons that they wish they had known when they got started.”
Speaking of not knowing what you don’t know, what you’re not doing during this transition can’t be equally as critical to your success as what you are doing. Therefore, keep these three tips in mind before pulling the virtual trigger:
Do not assume you already have experience working remotely.
In this specific change management process, overconfidence is rampant, and could be the crux of sustainability. Gary Walker, founder of Ready for Remote, explains, “Companies who do not currently work remotely will struggle to sustain prolonged periods of remote work as they won’t have the culture, digital working practices, and daily rituals required to support virtual collaboration. Some businesses may think because they currently allow WFH days, they’ll be equipped, but occasional flexibility is not a comprehensive policy.” Instead, he recommends self-checking based on a remote readiness checklist or a virtual health analysis from Distribute Consulting.
Do not replicate your office environment.
As warned earlier, “going remote” is not as simple as conducting business as usual from a laptop. Gitlab explains, “Remote work is not traditional work which is simply conducted in a home office instead of a company office. There is a natural inclination for those who have not personally experienced remote work to assume that the core (or only) difference between in-office work and remote work is location. This is inaccurate, and if not recognized, can be damaging to the entire practice of working remotely. The principles of remote work are different. The approach to conducting work is different.”
Do not assume that your workforce knows how to effectively work from home.
Location independence may seem like freedom, but in reality it requires keenly developed soft skills. Without these, a distributed workforce is likely to feel disconnected and unproductive. In a guide on preparing for emergency remote work, Tammy Bjelland, CEO of leadership training company, Workplaceless, notes, “While remote work is a valid strategy to maintain business continuity in times of crisis like the outbreak of COVID-19, suddenly allowing remote work with no clear policy or processes in place will not have the same positive outcomes as investing adequate resources into preparing leaders and employees for success in a remote environment.”
The common takeaway from these international remote work experts is this: be careful. If your goal is truly to protect your workforce and your business from the impacts of coronavirus, hiding at home is not the solution. Instead, make the thoughtful, intentional decision to enable flexibility as a contingency plan to enable continuity in this disaster, as well as other future emergencies.
The common takeaway from these international remote work experts is this: be careful.