Around the world, millions of people are attempting to slow the spread of COVID-19 by implementing social distancing measures such as remote working.
While Australia has not yet been placed into an official lockdown by the government, there has been a steady increase in people who are opting to work from home.
“We’re being forced into the world’s largest work-from-home experiment and, so far, it hasn’t been easy for a lot of organisations to implement,” said Saikat Chatterjee, Senior Director at global research and advisory firm Gartner.
According to Gartner, 64% of today’s professionals say they could work remotely, while remote work policies have been implemented in about 71% of all organisations. Once Generation Z fully enters the workforce, the demand to work from home will increase by 30% – and the implications of COVID-19 could push this figure even higher up.
Managing remote work for small business
Many large organisations, including EY, Telstra and the Big 4 banks, have instructed their employees to work from home in an attempt to minimise the impact of COVID-19 in Australia, but productivity and quality work output remain a key area of concern for small business owners.
Shuey Shujab, CEO of Sydney-based marketing agency Whitehat Agency, is one of many small businesses owners who has instructed his workers – a team of 16 employees – to work from home for the next two weeks in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve.’
“Sending a team of mostly young Millennials home to work for two weeks is a little daunting as a boss – how will I know everyone is doing their job? – but I trust my team and we’re using some great tools to stay connected, track productivity, and make sure we don’t drop the ball on any client work,” he said.
These tools include Slack and Google Hangouts, which allow businesses to communicate internally and with clients using the cloud, as well as ScreenMeter, which tracks employee projects through their home PC.
Shuey has also imposed specific rules in terms of his team’s daily work schedule. Each ‘work day’ begins at 9am with a video meeting, followed by an hourly huddle to share and discuss each team member’s progress.
“It’s vital we keep up our productivity levels and make sure we get through this incredibly difficult time. I hope that by implementing these measures Whitehat Agency will survive, and even thrive, during this unprecedented global crisis,” he said.
Business owners have many options to choose from when it comes to tracking and productivity apps, which are experiencing a surge in sales and downloads as the workforce shifts towards online platforms.
While apps may prove to be particularly useful considering the situation surrounding COVID-19, Robert Rawson, founder of SaaS time tracking and productivity app Time Doctor, says that responsibility is key – and it falls to both employees and employers.
- Separate work and personal– it’s easy to lose your boundaries and start working all of the time when working from home. Make sure to get in the habit of having a shower before you start work, and turning off your computer when you’re finished.
- Make it social– working remotely can be isolating, but you can compensate for this somewhat by having a virtual watercooler or other purely social online events.
- Gifs and memes– it might seem silly but little things like gifs and memes can spice up your virtual communication and make you feel like you’re not a robot.
- Get a second screen– it’s a huge increase in your productivity to get a second screen in your home office.
- Take advantage of solo time– one of the great advantages of remote work is that you can minimize distractions and get stuff done. Take advantage of this and make sure that you have some periods during the day when there are no interruptions and you can get a lot of work done in a short period of time.
- Check in and make sure you’re all on the same page– it’s really easy to get out of sync when you’re working remotely, so make sure that you’re checking in and not getting out of sync.
- Compensate for the distance– In an office you can “bump into each other” and discuss an urgent issue. When working remotely this doesn’t happen so you need to structure your communication so that you are communicating more often.
- Use video conferencing and screen sharing technology– This is an essential to increase the feeling of connection and quality of communication. Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts are all great options.
- Regular check-ins– Ideally you want to make sure that each team meets daily with a quick video chat. Also you will need a weekly call with all of your leaders. This structure of meeting rhythms is not as critical in an office because you can make the time to chat, but when you’re working remotely you need to structure it with a regular time to chat.
- Use tools for recording your screen– it’s not always possible to schedule a meeting, so instead you can record a video or a screen share and send your work colleague the recording. This is possible with tools such as Snagit or Loom.
- Use a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous communication– you can use a chat tool such as Slack to message someone instantly. It’s important to have some degree of instant communication when there is an urgent need to chat. However, this can interrupt the other person’s flow and therefore reduce their productivity, so you need to have a combination of “real time” or synchronous communication and delayed communication. For example, you can use a project management tool such as Asana, Jira for delayed communication and this can be a time for more thoughtful long-form communication. If you’re working across different time zones, the asynchronous communication becomes even more critical.
- Keep your team accountable– there is some level of discipline that comes from just getting into the office at 9am each day. This is lost when working remotely. You want to set a schedule for when everyone should be working. A flexible schedule may be ok, but you will need at least some period of time when everyone is working and able to get in sync. You can also use tools like Time Doctor to help to keep the team accountable for attendance and time worked.
Maximising security at home
Given the sudden shift to remote working as a result of the COVID-19 spread, it is also important that businesses are aware of potential security threats and phishing scams that could try to take advantage of the uncertainty that comes with a global virus.
Security awareness training platform KnowBe4, which is offering a complementary internet security home course (password: homecourse), recommends taking extra protective measures when working from home. Employees should be on the lookout for emails or text messages related to COVID-19 and confirm the information directly with their vendor, bank or boss.
If sharing computers with other family members, employees should ensure the latest security updates are installed – security scans are imperative for detecting malware or malicious objects. Emails, especially those with links and attachments, should always be opened with caution , while Wi-Fi connections need to be password protected to prevent unauthorised access.
Complex passphrases for passwords, password managers and VPNs can all be used to strengthen security measures.
Workplace health and safety
The switch to remote working in response to COVID-19 also means that the fixed rules surrounding workplace health and safety may become contested. It begs the question – who would be liable if a person working from home caught the virus?
Trent Johnson, Brisbane Accredited Specialist in compensation law, says that people working from home who should not assume they are automatically guaranteed compensation cover, despite the imminent threat of. Although employers can use video technology such as Skype to evaluate possible risks, the responsibility to ensure a safe home working environment will likely pass to the employee.
“You’d need to prove the virus was contracted during your employment whether you are in an office or a home workplace and this could be complicated if the virus is rampant in the worker’s local area and/or the community generally,” he said.
“Those who are fortunate to only get a very mild reaction to the virus won’t be able to claim any meaningful workers compensation.”
“But people whose job involves close contact with coronavirus patients, such as nurses and other health workers, may have a stronger claim as they could well argue their job exposed them to a greater risk of contracting the virus.”
Despite the uncertain climate created by the COVID-19 virus, it seems that most businesses will have no choice but to accept – and adapt to – flexible working arrangements. Whether these changes will drive productivity and success really comes down to how quickly and efficiently employers are willing to adapt and put into place new policies and strategies for making the best out of alternative approaches to working.