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Making the transition to (productive) remote work

Woman Looking At Phone In Home Office

Teresa Douglas (MBA ’14) is a remote people and operations manager and coauthor of “Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams.”

“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.”
Winston Churchill

With COVID-19 cases detected in the U.S. and internationally, there are locations where employees are or will be working remotely on a temporary basis to help stop the spread. Fortunately, you can minimize disruptions to your team’s productivity with some advance planning. Use these tips below to ensure a smooth transition to temporary remote work.

Access: Hardware and software check

Don’t wait until your employees are forced to stay home to figure out if they have the right access to tools and software outside the office. At the most basic level, do your employees have a computer or other appropriate device at home? Do their devices have space for company software? If an employee doesn’t have an appropriate device, consider requisitioning the necessary equipment or advising about a work-around solution for the duration of the COVID-19 situation.

Other software/hardware issues to think about:

  • Do your employees handle sensitive documents or data? Do any of them need access to a VPN? While this can be set up remotely, it might be faster to set this up while everyone is in the office.
  • Employees who work remotely can still see each other via video calls. Pick a video meeting app (Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype are examples) and perform a dry run.
  • Is the employee’s home internet adequate for video calls? If not, what is the plan to mitigate it? Can the company reimburse employees who need to upgrade their internet?
  • Should school closures be in effect or a spouse/partner or housemate also is required to work from home, will the internet /Wi-Fi connections be sufficient for all members of the household who may be working simultaneously?

Continuity of service

According to the CDS, “It’s likely that person to person spread will continue to occur.” In the event that an employee becomes too ill to work or must care for a sick family member, it’s important that you put plans in place now to cover for absent employees.

In areas where COVID-19 is widespread, some companies choose to have small numbers of employees rotate in and out of the office. This serves the dual function of minimizing the spread of the virus while keeping business functions running as efficiently as possible. If you opt to follow this routel, and work in a building with extra security, double check that your employees can get in if the security staff are not there to open the doors.

Whether everyone on the team or some of the team goes remote, there are steps you can take to continue to push forward on key deliverables.

  • If an employee covers for a team member, they will need to know what the absent employee is working on. Each employee should create a list of projects with links to needed documents. Each project should list its due date and status (not started, in progress, blocked, finished). Both the list and the needed documents should be moved to Google Docs and shared with the entire team.
  • Managers should create a system for tracking projects to keep track of all projects and timelines. Share this tracker with your team and ask them to keep it updated. That way, you can have a real time overview of where things stand.
  • Employees might need access to servers or software outside of their job scope if they will be covering for an absent employee. Double check that your employees have what they need to cover for each other.
  • How will the team handle sensitive information or documents? Is there already a process in place and can it be used remotely?
  • Remember that you might get sick. Is there someone else your employees should talk to in the event that you can’t make decisions? Should the team self-organize and if so, who should keep track of the project tracker?
  • Make sure you have a plan for the possibility that any employee(s) could be out temporarily – in particular, employees whose work is more challenging for others to pick up.

Remote management best practices

The remote workforce runs on trust. It is all too easy to worry that employees will slack off if they are out of sight. Or to worry that you don’t have a good overview of what everyone is working on. The biggest mistake new remote managers make is to try to micromanage their way out of this discomfort. Fortunately, you can learn from the mistakes of others.

Savvy remote managers don’t:

  • Text or call employees randomly throughout the day to see if they’re working
  • Force employees to log what they worked on every hour of their work day
  • Use software to take screenshots or log keystrokes to prove that they’re working

Instead, remote managers track outcomes, not time spent in seats. You can prove that your employees are working by:

  • Holding regular meetings so that employees can discuss what they’re working on, ask for help, or provide updates. A short video meeting with your team is an efficient way to do this.
  • Using your project tracker to keep an eye on projects and deliverables
  • Asking team members to list their working hours in their email signatures

Remember: Employees will be working outside of their office environment, and in some cases, without the usual support structures for their personal responsibilities. Children might be home from school, housemates might also be working from home, and employees will be trying to work in less than ideal circumstances. Stress levels may be high and tempers short.

If you want to help your team be as productive as possible then:

  • Consider allowing each team member to work flexible hours on an as-needed basis to the extent this is realistic. For example, employees with young children might wish to allocate some of their work hours to the early morning or evening so they can work without interruptions.
  • Hold a daily meeting, ideally no more than 15-30 minutes – taking alternate schedules into consideration when picking this time – so the team can collaborate in real time. Each person should have a few minutes to talk about what they’re working on.
  • Create a protocol for telling the team if someone gets sick and can’t work. If someone fails to report in by a certain time, then the team can assume the person is absent from work. If employees are too sick to work but well enough to write in, then that person should alert the team.

Note: As a manger, the single biggest service you can provide to your team is to acknowledge that you are working under extraordinary circumstances. No one will be at their best, but together you will do your best.

Someone’s child will scream during a video call. Someone’s internet won’t be as good as advertised. Provide some forgiveness up front, and your team will be forgiving with you when you inevitably misstep. You might never have wanted to work remotely, but if you take a strategic approach, you and your team will come out the other end of this situation stronger and more united in purpose.