You manage a team in your office. You just got word that everyone has to work remotely because of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Are you ready?
As of March 6, no government agencies that we are aware of have directed employees to work from home. But out of an abundance of caution — because we don’t know how this virus will play out — agencies need to prepare for that scenario.
For most agencies, this would be uncharted territory. Unlike snowstorms and other events that occasionally shut down offices for several days, a general quarantine could require most employees to work from home for a few weeks, or perhaps more.
We know that some employees are more “cut out” for working remotely, just as there are others who prefer to work in an office. But how do we help everyone, workers and leaders alike, work effectively in this new environment?
Here are some suggestions:
Establish structure and routine
- Establish standard weekly or daily meeting times or stand-ups. This predictability helps coordinate schedules and facilitate collaboration.
- Set expectations about workdays and work hours that are consistent with your current in-office expectations.
- Schedule “hot hours,” for example, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., where everyone is available for meetings, phone calls or virtual drop-ins.
- Appreciate that when they work, the rest of their hours might vary around the hot hours. For example, I might work my required 8 hours from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., followed by the hot hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Meanwhile, my colleague, who prefers to work in the evening, might work the hot hours and then 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
- Make it clear that tasks might come up that require employees to change their schedule to meet a deadline.
- Leaders can set up virtual “office hours” when they will be available to answer questions.
Remote workers often clamor for more training on “human” skills. If you haven’t already, consider providing training in advance of any potential mandates for remote work. This is also a good time to highlight existing training opportunities. In my experience, these topics are most frequently requested:
- Communications: Being heard. Getting information. Reaching out for help
- Connections and collaboration: Maintaining connections with coworkers to minimize isolation and loneliness
- Work/life balance: “Leaving” work when your office is at home
Remote team leaders also need training on how to lead remote workers effectively. Key issues include:
- Building trust within the team
- Creating and managing productive conflict
- Motivating/engaging team members, and gaining commitment
- Setting clear goals and realistic expectations
Communication is perhaps the most important job of the leader in times of crisis. How can the leader be more effective?
- Err on the side of overcommunication. Share as much as you can about the situation. If you don’t know how long you will be working remotely, tell your team that. Give them as much information as you can and acknowledge that the situation is fluid.
- Schedule regular updates even if you don’t have any new information.
- Insist on video conferencing whenever possible. “Seeing” the team enhances communication through facial expressions and body language.
- Schedule frequent check-ins with your team members to see how they are doing and if they need anything. Be sure you are checking in, not checking up.
Don’t forget that employees did not choose to work remotely. They might welcome the opportunity, and they might love it eventually, but right now it’s one huge change that could be forced on them. They’re being forced to do this “out of an abundance of caution,” for their safety. Appreciating and acknowledging their anxiety is critical. How can you help them through this possibly traumatic change?
- Honor where they’re coming from. Create a special “to-go” box that they can use to take the office supplies they need to work effectively at home. Encourage them to take with them important photos or mementos that will make their home office feel like their office desk.
- Arrange to have their plants cared for if they choose to leave them in the office.
- Assure them that they can return to the office if they’ve forgotten something, per guidance from your agency.
- Assure them that this is temporary, even if it’s for a week or three weeks or longer.
- Give them opportunities to share their concerns. Consider partnering with an experienced remote worker with a new remote worker.
- Be patient with workers as they learn new systems and new structures.
- Emphasize the positive: They will be safer. They won’t have a commute. They will be able to work and get paid and not use their sick days. They might find they like remote working.
- Create opportunities for social interactions. Have virtual coffee breaks. Create team-building activities, such as online scavenger hunts.
Are your people ready?
Creating a remote ready organization is essential when we’re dealing with a crisis like a coronavirus. Even without the crisis, remote work is not going away. It has grown by 41% in the last five years and 90% in the last ten. Other studies project that by 2027, 50% of the workforce will trade in their offices to work remotely.
We can use this time wisely to create smart, preemptive strategies that will prepare us for a crisis, and we can also use this challenge to prepare for what a recent study projected, that remote work will be the demographic trend of the decade.
Dr. Deborah Smith Cook is the president and owner of Atheseus, a coaching and consulting company. She offers workshops and coaching helping remote teams and remote team leaders achieve high performance.
With over 25 years of experience in strategy consulting and talent development strategy, Deborah has held highly responsible positions in both the public and private sectors, most recently with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) where she led a hybrid remote team and worked as a full-time remote worker. She is a Certified Facilitator in Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC as well as PROSCI Change Management.