What will coronavirus teach us about remote working?

Employers may find remote working a tricky genie to put back into its bottle

Across businesses in China, Japan and South Korea, many offices and workplaces have been empty for days.

While the world braces for the full impact of coronavirus to become clear, we're witnessing an unprecedented spike in remote working. 

The logic is clear, where there’s reason to believe an employee may have been to an outbreak area, or had contact with someone who has, tell people to stay at home, wash their hands regularly, and mitigate the risk of infection by removing the requirement for people to congregate on trains, on buses and in offices.

Businesses, schools and colleges in a host of cities outside Asia, London and Bristol among them, have felt justified in asking workers to stay at home. And it’s unlikely that these will be the only ones.

The official line from Public Health England is that widespread transmission of the virus in the UK is “highly likely”.

Unfortunately, this story has a way to run yet.

While the trend for the last five years has been towards more remote working across much of the developed world, this is the first time the policies, tools and platforms have been forced into use.

In Japan, for instance, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week called on companies to allow employees to work from home. The cultural significance of this shouldn’t be underestimated; less than 5% of Japan’s workforce worked remotely last year, so this will be a novel experience for both employers and employees.

In the UK, the government this week gave a strong indication that it would issue similar advice to workers in the event of a widespread outbreak.

What will this teach us about remote working? Might Coronavirus leave a more transformative legacy on workplace culture than everyone’s hand-washing etiquette being totally on point?

Should this test prove successful - once things return to normal - employers may find remote working a tricky genie to put back into its bottle.

Which might not be a bad thing. Researchers from Stanford University in the US have found that increased engagement among remote workers impacts productivity to the equivalent of an extra day’s work every week. Among millennials, flexible and home working is a key employment benefit, worth changing jobs for.
Here are the best remote working management tips we’ve come across:

Personalise:

Not all employees will react the same way to remote working. Some thrive and feel liberated. Some feel isolated. Some are uncomfortable with the blurring of boundaries between work and home. Some will do their best work during office hours. Some will rise early and crack on before dawn. This is the flexibility that remote working introduces, and for remote workers to “feel cared for as a person”, Gallup advises managers to accept their employees’ method and reasoning.

Socialise:

Isolation and loneliness can be exacerbated by removal of the social interaction people usually enjoy Monday to Friday, so on calls, video conferences and meetings, schedule in the first few minutes of the conversation to chew the fat about issues outside of work. How are the kids? How’s that online yoga course working out for you?

Clarify:

Without the constant interaction of the office environment, employees lose a lot of the context about their manager’s expectations of them. So it’s important to be absolutely explicit about what the remote employee is expected to deliver. Parameters, deadlines and metrics must be crystal clear.

Communicate:

Establish the method of communication that works best for everyone and agree how regularly they should check. This might include setting up a weekly video call with the team or asking them to send a quick progress email every morning.

Apps like Chatter, Slack and Teams can help foster unplanned conversations between employees. These watercooler moments are crucial in the workplace environment for the flow of knowledge and information, they enhance productivity and aid development.

In the short term, employers should prepare for a - possibly extended - period of disruption where remote working is no longer a perk, but a government directive.

If you’re worried about what the future holds, McKinsey has published a full analysis of the implications for business and detailed advice here.

 

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