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Working from home (remote): Are we addressing right?   

COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges and impacts on companies and its employees around the world.  Though this is something unexpected some companies has considered the possible pandemic exposure in their business continuity management (BCM) and as part of crises management, some others got ready when they heard the news of COVID-19 outbreak in China.

Many countries have gone for a lockdown as a result of this COVID-19 outbreak and the impact caused by spreading of the virus. This is going on for more than 14 days in many parts of the world and in Sri Lanka.

Most of the IT companies had long established home working procedures and in software companies this has been a common routine for quit sometime. Having said this, most companies have not tested the home working as part of crisis management activity in their BCM. This has created whole heap of issues during this long extended days of working from home.

Ideally this home working will have many impacts on the process, procedures and governance structures in an organization. The intention of this article is not to discuss how to establish those practices or gain benefits to organization from this. This article is with the intention of discussing the practices that we could adopt to make home working/remote working smooth, productive and engaging for the companies and its employees at this point in time.

The involvement of HR in engaging activities along with the support of IT,  to ensure that the employees and organization gets the much needed support in overcoming this emotional rollercoaster crisis, while encouraging social distancing and safety procedures among employees.

Lookout for signs of stress in employees

Use direct conversations and observations to gain visibility of the concerns and challenges of the employees. This may be due to challenges they have in their working mechanisms or emotional challenges due to the effect of outbreak or mental stress due to work pressure and lockdown inside the house for an extended period of time.

Facilitate regular, informal conversations between manages and employees. Guide managers in handling issues arising from COVID-19 pandemic, along with job security and prospects, communicating the much needed emotional support, benefits established for the employees during the crises situation, handling workplace tension etc.

Establish escalation procedures and have regular communication with employees to ensure employees concerns are taken care and take every opportunity to make employee clear that you are there to support and care for them.

Understand and acknowledge the fact that remote working and virtual communication are different from the normal working environment, and will not be perfect. Therefore ensure respectful and professional approach to all employees in all dealings of the organization’s undertakings.

Lookout for lacking in dealing with the new environment and coach the employees as per the current necessities. Establish hot lines/help desk for employees to reach out in situations that they need assistance. This can be on work related issues, situations of emotional conflicts, may be decision making, stress management etc.

Understand the issues resulting as a result of lockdown/curfew, and can take necessary steps in coordinating/getting the essential items to employees or direct/help them to get those necessities. (some employees may be away from their families, and some may come from difficult areas; where finding the necessary food items and medication required for the family needs are difficult).

Address home/remote working needs 

Ensure all employees have the necessary technology needed to make remote working activity smooth.  This is beyond providing a laptop and internet connection, for eg: ensure all necessary software including the remote working software are available to conduct the required activities, necessary camera facility is available for those need to participate in virtual meetings, they are made aware of the security procedures that are to be adhered, all necessary training that is required to handle the remote working is provided or available in online self help mode etc.

Those who have trouble in dealing with technology, is given required training and support as expected. Also ensure employee remote IT support service is available during all working hours.

Make sure remote working security procedures are constantly reminded to employees and monitored.

Consider the connectivity problems in different areas and bandwidth issues with service providers and arrange alternative mechanisms for smooth working.

 Establish contingency and workarounds for technological failures

Consider technological issues created by capacity outreach and have contingencies and workarounds built or support services established to address the issues, to minimize disruption.

This can be due to unexpected volumes (full capacity is not tested) of employees trying to connect to the office network remotely could create number of capacity related issues on the IT infrastructures.

This can have impacts on the resource utilization, delivery expectations and even on IT security. Organizations need to have plans to handle this effectively.

IT need to understand the levels of employees and the knowledge of IT in establishing procedures, they also need to understand the vulnerability of remote working by unprepared, IT illiterate users and take preventive measures to protect from possible exploitations.

 Reinforce organizational value

Organizations would have spent time in developing organizational values and culture. These values have gained confidence in employees in working for, and trusting the organization. Specially, those policies and organizational conducts practiced. These values need to be reinforced.

During the periods of uncertainty, misconduct and politics may surface. Therefore establish channels for reporting misconduct and keep employees reminded on the punishment/penalty for non compliance. Encourage right behaviors all the time at all levels and ensure work well-being is promoted.


Rethink performance

Rethink performance evaluation criteria’s. This may not be the best time to evaluate performance. All existing employees would have proved themselves in various contexts already. This crisis context would have created diversified demands and stress in different individuals. The context in which the employees are currently in may not be an ideal state to evaluate performance.

This may different for a company which has already established remote working practices; still the current pandemic context may not be the right time to evaluate performance only based on the current working.

The evaluations should always consider the previous commitments to organization and performances made, and create a justification for their commitment and job security.


Use objectives to create clarity

In the context of uncertainty the role definitions may not work as expected or even fall apart, this may lead to loss focus on what to be accomplished by employees.

Give more emphasis on achieving objectives than focusing on stringent process and procedures, in creating clarity of achievements expected by the employees. Also drive greater employee engagement.

Focus on outputs/outcomes than on strict procedures

In this crisis context working from home is very different from the environment we normally get in an office. In the remote landscape, where people are currently located would have created a different demand on employees in juggling between their work and family commitments, therefore they may prefer completing their work expectations in ways that are easiest and most productive for them.

Therefore organizations should considers outcomes and outputs that needs to be focused than in executing strict process, procedures and working hours ( if the organization has not established a remote working procedure already). Also should consider eliminating along approval process and delegate authority based on sensitivity and context.

Encourage the usage of virtual tools wherever possible and schedule meetings at mutually convenient times. Empower teams to complete their assignments in their own way by providing flexibility.


Establish quick recognition mechanisms and Encourage innovation

Improve your monitoring techniques and relationships with employees through direct engagement in increasing visibility in a remote environment. Identify recognition quickly and appreciate appropriately. The uncertain circumstances urge a need to be recognized more than usual. Also the right recognition, not only motivates the recipient, it also simulate the right behavior in other employees.

Also employees who are weak need more recognition than others in keeping them motivated – this will be different in well established remote working environment - but in the context of sudden lockdown, considerations are different in looking into the psychological well being of the employees.

This uncertain environment can bring many innovative thoughts and process improvement opportunities from the employees, these ideas should not be ignored they should be encouraged and valuable contributions and suggestions should be rewarded. In the mean time improvement/suggestion logs should be established to encourage contributions by employees at all levels, and these ideas needs to be evaluated through proper mechanism and recognized appropriately.

During disruptive times risk taking (calculated risk) and innovation becomes important for organizational success and employee engagement. Therefore while encouraging this behavior, organizations should provide opportunities to share successes and safety for potential failures.

by N Nirmalan

(This article was already published on 8th April 2020 on BCS Sri Lanka Section Newsletter)