Strategies for building a remote workforce in the age of coronavirus

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As coronavirus continues to spread and more extreme safety measures are being encouraged and enforced across the globe, the switch to remote work is on the fast track for many in the workplace.

Many companies, including Facebook, Amazon and Google have asked their employees to work remotely, cancelled non-essential travel and separated their office populations to mitigate the spread of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has released guidelines for businesses, including encouraging telework to “increase the physical distance among and between employees.”

Read More: Coronavirus will be catalyst for 'monumental changes' in U.S. workforce

But flipping the switch to remote work is not always a simple transition, says Miranda Nicholson, vice president of human resources at Formstack, a data management company. Formstack has had 60% of their workforce working remotely since they were founded in 2006.

“Just turning a switch to working remotely presents a lot of potential issues for organizations and management that they’ve never had before,” Nicholson says.

Nicholson shared how employers can establish a plan and communicate effectively with their employees — during the coronavirus outbreak and beyond — as more companies recognize the benefits of remote work.

As more companies are tasked with going remote during this outbreak, have they done enough to prepare and take the necessary precautions?

It's a mix of both. I've seen some organizations not put an emphasis on what feels psychologically safe to their employees. So whether or not they're traveling somewhere for business, the choice should be given to the employees as to whether or not they can travel free of repercussion, for example. I think where I'm seeing a little too much precaution is organizations who are effectively moving to 100% remote work without any sort of plan in place.

In what ways are companies not prepared to move toward a remote work environment?

For organizations that have never operated remotely, I have seen that they take for granted the amount of communication, both verbal and nonverbal, that happens when you're co-located. People have to be very intentional about how and when they communicate when they're in a remote environment.

The other thing that companies should be mindful of are those communication tools. So do you have an internal instant messaging system? Do you solely rely on email? Are phone numbers published and do employees have access to those and to the people that they need to or ask them to the people that they need to get their jobs done? So I think putting some really strong best practices in place for communication when turning the remote switch on is definitely step one.

What are the necessary steps to putting a remote work plan in place to mitigate confusion and fear?

The number one fear that we here at Formstack is with managers: How will I manage my remote employees? And what we always go back to is you need to exhibit over-communication. Things that you would lean over and tell your coworker that's sitting right next to you, you now need to say in an instant message or give them a call.

Create a plan for how you expect people to behave. What are work hours? What are the expectations around when are you at your desk? When are you making calls? Do you have a dedicated workspace? Make a plan for what the ideal state of remote work looks like at your organization. Address any gaps that may exist, whether that be through policy or process and then communicate that in an open forum to your employees and ask for feedback. Is there anything that we need to think about including in this plan so that when you make that switch to remote, you're doing that not only in a way that's effective for the business, but it's effective for the individual?

Then have a beginning and end date. For example, we're going to do this as long as the virus is prevalent and our employees have concerns about it. Or, we're going to try this for a period of 120 days and see what happens. And if it's working for us, great. And if it's not, then we'll turn it back off. But having an end goal of what success looks like is definitely important as well.

What are some of the benefits that working remotely can bring to a workplace, especially during a time of crisis?

Employees can feel psychologically safe in their own environment. It allows people to focus in areas where they may be distracted in an office environment. At Formstack, we hire problem solvers, so we're hiring people who are already highly autonomous in their behavior, which is essential for remote working when you can’t have your manager sitting right next to you. Oftentimes you've got to create your own tasks and get your job done with minimal supervision. I think that speaks really well to millennials, and it also speaks really well to having your business grow.

As companies experiment with this model, do you anticipate more business will adapt to a remote workforce, even after coronavirus concerns are not as severe?

Absolutely. We measure engagement and one of the factors that we look at is, are you remote or are you located in an office? And we have found a link between employee engagement and workplace productivity when an employee is remote. With the right person and in the right role, remote work is absolutely the best path forward for a lot of organizations when it comes to productivity. Where you see those obstacles are in a lack of trust in the individual to get the job done. So for example, if it's a brand new hire, and they had one job after college, that may not work in a remote environment because they need that direction and they need guidance more regularly. But for people who are more seasoned, those roles work really well.

When you have that flexibility to determine what your work day looks like and where your workday occurs, it's really hard to go back to something else because you've been given that trust and autonomy to get your job done. You're working from an environment that you feel very productive.

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