In March, the UK Government requested that, where possible, all companies should operate a ‘work-from-home’ policy. Like most countries worldwide, this has been instigated in order to reduce the human tragedy affecting hundreds of thousands of people from the Covid-19 pandemic.
For many of us, working from home is nothing new but these are very different times and a precedent which has been set has impacted nations across the globe. Some companies are set up for remote working but not on this scale. For other companies which discourage such practices, this is a tectonic shift to their culture.
For Europe, we are now weeks into this ‘lock-down’ and MWA took the opportunity to ask a number of our clients across Europe what challenges they faced:
- Lack of face-to-face supervision: the first concern relates to the efficiencies of working which can be lost when being remote, particularly given the need to balance family life with the closure of schools.
- Lack of access to information: for some of our clients, they are still used to working with hard files and this is the first time where they have had to manage files electronically. Additionally, newly remote workers have been surprised by the amount of extra time required to access information from co-workers. This can extend to inter-personal challenges. Meeting someone for a coffee break and venting about some personal or professional issue is simply lost within a remote working framework, thus increasing the feeling of social isolation. This can also become self-perpetuating, leading to a loss of identity within the company and increasing the intention to leave when life returns to normal.
- Distractions at home: ordinarily, these can be easily managed. However, with the sudden changes which have affected all organisations together with the impact across the populations – old and young – it is extremely difficult to manage the sub-optimal work environment.
With just these few issues in mind (there are many more), fortunately, there are specific research-based steps that managers can take without great effort to improve the engagement and productivity of remote employees.
With increasing numbers of Covid-19 patients and increased employee anxiety, (both professionally and financially), a change of routine and bombardment of social media, leaders need to be more visible and available than ever to support colleagues and allay concerns. Whilst you cannot be there physically, you need to work hard to being there ‘virtually’. As a leader, you will need to also be calm and empathetic. Research on emotional intelligence and emotional contagion tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crises. If a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this will have a trickle-down effect. In these unusual times, you need to be flexible and agile to working expectations as well as working hours – you are installing new working ideologies and the whole team needs to feel connected.
Harvard Business Review conducted research on this particular topic relating to the workplace. As an absolute minimum, you need to establish ‘rules of engagement’ from the outset, scheduling regular set times for video conferencing or IM when it is urgent. There needs to be transparency in communicating from the business and ensuring regular practices to provide structure to the day and maintain a sense of purpose for the employees. There is no longer the opportunity to have a coffee break between meetings. This can be established at the start of the video call to allow colleagues to connect on non-business matters – just don’t base it around Covid-19! Some clients we work with have also taken this a step further by carrying out virtual celebrations for successful milestones in their business. A virtual pizza or party meeting may seem artificial, but it helps greatly to reduce feelings of isolation.
We are all privileged in this generation to have access to wonderful technology to facilitate remote working and this lies at the heart of successful working. Using different communication methods, can ensure teams feel connected. Company-wide chat tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack allows employees to communicate with each other. Video calls create a sense of a virtual office and must become the norm over email and telephone.
We are in the biggest global crisis for a generation, impacting businesses and employees in ways never anticipated. We will all get through this challenging period in our lives and we will seek positives from this experience, which will undoubtedly change the future of business practices to come.
Larson et al, 2020 A Guide to Managing Remote Workers’ Harvard Business Review, March
Craven et al, 2020, ‘Covid-19 Response Report’, McKinsey March