The rapid global outbreak of COVID-19 has prompted major businesses to impose a remote work setup on their employees abruptly. In less than a month, the COVID-19 outbreak already made a serious impact around the world.
Countries have already closed down their borders, sending global stock markets plummeting. With this kind of uncertainty, companies are naturally flustered about the impact of the health crisis to their firm’s performance.
Additionally, businesses should also address the concerns of employee safety and wellbeing that arises from these unprecedented events.
Expectations Setting: Meeting the demands of remote work
With the unprecedented world health crisis in our midst, some employees from all over the world are now working from home for the first time.
It is realistic to assume that until government institutions have established a clear mandate to mitigate the spread of the virus, shifting to a home office setup will be the “new normal” for most employees.
As such, it is preferable to establish a clear work from home protocol and train employees in advance. But realistically, managing employees remotely is complicated even under the most ideal circumstances. And with the sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, adequate preparation from organizations may not be feasible.
Not all employees regard remote work the same way, especially when they are driven by circumstances to agree to it abruptly. The organization’s management team needs to establish protocols that will improve employee engagement for remote work, despite their lack of time to prepare.
Consequently, organizations also need to understand the challenges that make remote work physically demanding for employees. They need to accept that some of their high-performing employees may experience a decline in performance and engagement, especially during the transition period.
The Harvard Business Review mentioned several major challenges of remote work:
CHALLENGE 1: Lack of face-to-face supervision
Both managers and employees may typically express concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction with their team members. Managers would often get worried that their employees are not working as efficiently and effectively in a work from home setup. While their employees, without their direct and hands-on supervision, would often struggle with the reduced managerial support and communication.
The reduced interaction may often make the employees feel that their remote managers are not taking their needs into consideration, thereby making their work more tedious at home.
CHALLENGE 2: Lack of access to crucial business information
The new remote workers may find it surprising that it takes more time and effort to locate and relay information among their coworkers. Even getting answers to what seems like a mundane task may feel like a significant obstacle to an employee who works from home.
CHALLENGE 3: Social isolation
Work from home employees would often regard loneliness as one of the major challenges of remote work. The new remote workers would most likely miss the daily social interaction that they experience in an office setting. Extroverts are more likely to suffer from isolation, especially if they do not have an opportunity to have a regular social interaction in a remote work setup.
CHALLENGE 4: Distractions at home
The sudden transition to a work from home setup means that it is expected that employees will be contending with suboptimal workspaces at home. There is also the case of unexpected parenting responsibilities since classes were suspended during the government lockdown. Thus, organizations should expect these distractions to arise during the sudden transition to remote work.
Strategic employee communication plan for COVID-19
During a global health crisis, it is essential to remember that organizations need to give their employees enough leeway to get things done.
They need to trust their employees to get creative, leverage on their strengths, and engage with their coworkers in meaningful ways that will make remote work effective amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
Proactive organizations have already started to create COVID-19 management teams, task forces, and committees with a response mechanism tailored to their specific geographic locations. These teams develop policies and provide information to their employees regarding COVID-19 awareness, prevention, and management.
Here are several critical objectives of an effective employee communication plan during a health crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic:
It is crucial for the management to provide up-to-date and accurate information, including internal protocols on remote work for their employees. The management needs to inform their staff with reliable information, provide flexible workplace scenarios pertaining to COVID-19, and specify clear instructions on policies for employees who may have possibly contracted the virus. Make this internal protocol accessible on the employee portal to help manage employee concerns and dispel misinformation towards the COVID-19 response plan.
More importantly, the management also needs to adequately address employee concerns and alleviate their existing anxieties and fears. Organizational leaders need to be authentic, transparent, and empathetic with their messaging during the crisis.
As such, communication among employees should be considered as an engaging and open dialogue between teams. Make sure that the staff is given an ample opportunity to be heard and be involved.
A clear and consistent messaging is the key to help give information that reassures organizational members. Whether it’s as simple as daily email blast updates, a good grasp of communication will help manage misconceptions in the organization, and calm fears of the unknown.
This will help employees be more responsive and receptive to communications on how the company will move forward amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. These messages will also motivate and encourage positive behaviors among organizational members to help them jumpstart back into their regular performance on the job.
Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, showed several tips from companies in Asia that have implemented various best practices for their remote workers:
TIP 1: Provide direction and confidence.
Employees rely on the management to take action and set the direction for the company’s future. When it comes to discussions among executives and managers, the firm needs to prioritize employee health and business sustainability. The management needs to communicate candidly and authentically to their employees. By providing a concrete action plan, organizations can mitigate the fear and uncertainty that arises in case the health crisis worsens.
TIP 2: Contextualize the COVID-19 impact to the company.
Make the organization a trusted source for accurate and up-to-date information on COVID-19 and its corresponding impact on the firm. Avoid sharing information from unverified sources on social media. Consequently, make sure that the organization contextualizes the data and information as much as possible so that it can specifically relate to the firm’s industry and stakeholders.
TIP 3: Encourage peer-to-peer interaction.
It is essential to entice employees to maintain a constant professional and personal interaction among organizational members, even though it may be limited to virtual catch-ups. Management needs to encourage employees to leverage the use of online communication and collaboration platforms to create new ways to work effectively together and keep in touch.
TIP 4: Establish team guidelines.
A work from home scenario varies for every employee, depending on their needs and their family’s well being. With various class suspensions, employees need to take on two roles as they support their family throughout the day and be a diligent remote worker at the same time. This is why organizations need to empower their team and help them adjust to the varying demands of remote work. Managers need to adapt to their team’s conflicting remote work scenarios and come up with core team guidelines that will make it easier for each employee to collaborate.
TIP 5: Provide flexibility for employees’ remote work needs.
It is imperative for employees to feel empowered enough to make choices that will suit their needs and comfort levels at home. While the organization needs to prepare for the eventual return of their employees to the office, the firm also needs to have a backup plan in case it takes a while to be able to return to normal. As such, organizations need to anticipate the needs of their remote workers and make sure that the firm is flexible enough to prepare for an extended lockdown period or be back running the regular operations instantly.
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A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers. (2020). Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://hbr.org/2020/03/a-guide-to-managing-your-newly-remote-workers
Bush, M. (2020). Managing The COVID-19 Crisis: Seven Tips For Business Leaders . Business Facilities – Area Economic Development, Site Selection & Workforce Solutions. Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://businessfacilities.com/2020/03/managing-covid-19-crisis-seven-tips-for-business-leaders/
Kluch, S. (2020). Leading Remotely: What Managers Need to Keep Teams Engaged. Gallup.com. Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/296528/leading-remotely-managers-need-keep-teams-engaged.aspx
Leading through COVID-19: communicating with your employees. (2020). BDO Canada. Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://www.bdo.ca/en-ca/insights/advisory/human-resources/leading-through-covid-19-communicating-with-your-employees/
Wiles, J. (2020). 5 Remote Work Lessons Learned from Asia. Gartner.com. Retrieved 8 April 2020, from https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/early-covid-19-lessons-learned-from-employers-in-asia/