Remote working is top of the agenda right now, as organisations look to protect the health and wellbeing of their staff, whilst also maintaining business continuity.
Many larger organisations have already adopted work from home policies, and if widely predicted social distancing measures are introduced, we could soon see large numbers following suit.
While remote working is already commonplace in some businesses, for others it will be a complete departure from the norm. Employees who are unfamiliar with the concept may struggle with being isolated from colleagues, while managers may have concerns about how to performance mange people from a distance and keep productivity high.
So, what can HR do to support staff and ease the transition to widespread remote working as the battle against the Coronavirus continues?
1. Set the ground rules
HR has an important role to play in setting the ground rules around remote working. For many organisations, it will not be possible for all roles to be managed from home, so there needs to be clarity around issues like who can and can’t work remotely (some business critical roles may still require a physical presence) and for how much of the week (some organisations, for example, are experimenting with rotational arrangements).
Expectations also need to be clearly set.
Will people be expected to be online 9-5, for example, or will there be flexibility around when work is done? What equipment and IT support will be provided and how will this be accessed? If everyone is clear about boundaries from the start, it is less likely that conflict or perceptions of unfairness will arise. Visit the CIPD’s Coronavirus hub for information and resources around flexible and remote working.
2. Step up communication
If large numbers of people are working remotely, communication needs to shift to suit the virtual environment. HR can help managers by providing some best-practice advice. Teams might want to introduce daily virtual check-ins, for example, where people can discuss priorities, update on progress and seek advice from colleagues. Managers need to ensure this isn’t perceived as ‘checking up’ on people to make sure they are glued to their laptops, but as an opportunity to maintain team spirit and keep everyone focused on their goals.
Regular communication also provides an important opportunity to keep everyone up to date in a fluid and fast-changing situation. Decisions may need to be made, for example, about which activities are business critical and which can take a back seat for a while. If everyone is clear, there is less opportunity for misunderstanding or misdirected efforts.
3. Provide training
If remote working hasn’t previously been widespread, people may not be familiar with the communication platforms that the business may be using. HR needs to work closely with the IT team or provider to make sure people are confident with the systems being used. A few short training webinars, for example, will soon get everyone up to speed.
This is also a good opportunity to remind people about remote working good practice – such as the need to take regular breaks and be aware of posture and seating arrangements. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has some useful guidance on using display screen equipment which can be used to remind people of the do’s and don’ts.
4. Give guidance on performance management
Managers may be concerned about how they will manage people who are out of their line of sight, particularly if there are people in their team who are under performing or who are working in a high-pressure, target driven environment. In environments where on the job coaching is the norm, it can be a challenge when you can’t simply drop by someone’s desk with a quick bit of advice.
HR can support by providing a refresher on performance management and some tips on how this can be applied in the virtual space. If the business is using an automated HR system, managers will already have access to templates to guide discussions and a central space where actions from performance conversations can be logged and monitored.
In uncertain and ambiguous times, where employees may be out of their comfort zone, perhaps even covering unfamiliar work for colleagues who are ill, the key will be to take an individual approach. It will be important to keep up scheduled appraisals, as well as more informal check-ins, so that managers have a chance to find out where people are struggling and what additional support or training might be needed.
5. Take action to combat isolation
For those who are not used to it, remote working can be a lonely affair. Without the opportunity to have a quick chat at the coffee machine or get together with colleagues over lunch, people can quickly start to feel isolated. Buffer’s ‘State of Remote Work 2019’ report says that apart from feeling they are missing out socially, remote workers also report they miss out on opportunities for collaboration or learning.
Some HR systems have internal, social portals where employees can chat and share information – if these are not being used, now might be the time to reinvigorate them. Managers can also introduce a social element to virtual catch-ups, making sure there is time for the personal chit chat that would naturally happen at the start of a face-to-face meeting. This can really help to bond the team and provide a bit of light relief at a time when people are understandably feeling anxious about what is happening around them.