The coronavirus, which at the time of writing had infected more than 90,000 people in over 40 countries is sending a ripple effect across the globe.
Without effective containment measures, scientists predict that an infected person could transmit the virus to an additional 1.5 to 3.5 people.
As an employer, you want to keep your staff safe – so what steps should you be taking?
If we look at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, then at the time of writing they propose “social distancing” as a potential way to help slow the spread of the virus. According to these official guidelines, effective social distancing measures could include suspending schools, postponing mass gatherings – and remote working.
In this article, we’ll examine the state of remote working as of March 2020, and the impact the coronavirus outbreak is having on business across the globe.
March 2020: The current state of remote working
The 2019 State of Remote Work survey discovered that nearly two-thirds of workers spend a portion of their time working remotely. With proven benefits including increased productivity and employee satisfaction, remote working has been on the rise for years, but in the current climate we’re seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of remote workers.
According to a report from The New York Times, many prominent London businesses have already switched to a remote working model, including Chevron who recently sent 300 workers home after an employee returned from Italy with flu-like symptoms. The media group OMG also reacted swiftly to concerns that an employee was displaying coronavirus symptoms, by instructing 1,000 of their employees to work from home.
“When trends or shifts are already growing or gaining strength, shocks — like the coronavirus — tend to increase their growth or strength,” said Steve King, a partner at small business consulting firm Emergent Research.
Further evidence comes from research platform Sentieo, who analyzed changes in the stock market during the coronavirus outbreak, and found some surprising trends.
During any man-made or natural crisis, the stock market typically experiences a slump, but Sentieo identified several apparently unrelated companies that were experiencing a stock market surge. Companies who were bucking the trend included file management software Atlassian, video conferencing provider Zoom Video Communications, and instant messaging platform Slack.
Alap Shah, CEO and co-founder of Sentieo, believes there’s a common theme amongst these businesses:
“As a SaaS leader ourselves, and as active users of some of these services, we realized that this is the “Work from Home” portfolio,” concluded Alap Shah. “We are witnessing the markets pricing around large-scale adoption of these names due to the coronavirus.”
4 tips for successful remote working in a crisis
The evidence strongly indicates that organizations are already embracing remote working as a way to help combat the coronavirus.
Even if your business already has a remote working policy, there are always steps you can take to create a more robust, effective policy. In this section, we’ll explore 4 ways that you can refine your remote working strategy, and ensure that it’s ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
1. Review your existing remote working policies
The closest historical reference point for the coronavirus is the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which prompted many organizations to create emergency remote working plans.
“Companies probably have these plans in the vault someplace, and they’re probably not all that different than they were 20 years ago,” said Peter Cappelli, a management professor and expert on human resources at the University of Pennsylvania.
Technology moves fast, so if your business already has a remote working plan then now’s the time to review your policies to ensure they’re relevant, up-to-date and that there’s no room for improvement. In particular, you should pay careful attention to all the apps, programs, and hardware that’s mentioned in your remote working policy, as updates may have been released in the interim, or a competing product may now have more to offer your business.
You should also verify that all this software and hardware still aligns with your company’s broader policies, for example any policies surrounding accessibility and security.
Malicious third parties are coming up with new and innovative hacks all the time, so it’s also a good idea to scrutinize the security side of your remote working policy. You should consider whether there’s any new security software, hardware or features that can help protect your staff while they’re working remotely, particularly if they’re planning to use personal devices for work purposes.
2. Make these policies available now
Once you’re happy with your remote working policies, you should make them available to all your staff.
People fear the unknown, so providing your employees with clear instructions will help reduce their stress and anxiety surrounding the thought of having to work remotely.
An employee who feels informed and comfortable with their employer’s remote working policies, is also more likely to take a proactive approach and start working from home, where appropriate. Swift self-isolation will dramatically reduce the employee’s chances of transmitting the illness to other people, so it’s vital your employees are prepared to work from home at the first sign of a potential problem.
Giving your employees the chance to review your policies ahead of time, also ensures that any transition to remote working will be as smooth and stress-free as possible, as your employees will already know exactly what’s expected from them.
By preparing for the worst case scenario, you can make this scenario far less stressful, anxiety-provoking and chaotic, if it ever does become a reality for your business.
3. Don’t let employees become isolated
Working from home can be lonely, especially if an employee is self-isolating and has limited contact with friends and family.
There’s plenty of tools that can help remote workers maintain positive, healthy contact with colleagues. Telecommunications apps and services such as Skype, Microsoft Teams and Slack can keep those all-important lines of communication open, while cloud-based collaboration tools allow co-workers to collaborate in real time, regardless of whether they’re on-site or at home. Even something as small as editing a document and receiving immediate feedback can boost an employee’s mood and make them feel like they’re still part of a team.
Additionally, you may want to consider forwarding the NHS self-isolation advice to any employees who are working remotely as a result of the coronavirus, particularly if you suspect they might be suffering from loneliness or low moods as a result of self-isolation.
4. Don’t forget your in-premise employees!
In this article we’ve focused on remote workers, but what about the staff who are still physically coming into work?
Some companies have sent their entire workforce home, which is a step you may need to take if you suspect there’s a risk to all members of staff. However, once you’ve prepared for the worst case scenario, you should consider the possibility that only some of your staff will need to work
remotely, while the rest remain on-site. For example, perhaps a single employee was exposed to an infected friend or family member, and is now working from home as a precaution.
While it’s important to support your remote workers, you shouldn’t overlook the needs of any staff who remain on-site.
If you’ve created a remote working policy, then it should be available to everyone, including workers who are still physically present in the office. You should also make these policies available to employees who cannot do their jobs remotely – after all, an employee who is on-site 100% of the time may still occasionally need to interact with remote colleagues.
An on-premise employee who has zero insight into your remote working policies is going to feel confused, frustrated and perhaps even a little resentful – especially since even today there’s the misconception that working from home is equivalent to slacking off! Having access to company guidelines specifying exactly what’s expected from remote workers, can ensure smoother collaboration, and less tension between on-premise staff and remote workers.
Finally, remember that on-premise staff may be experiencing many of the same stresses and anxieties as workers who are self-isolating at home. Now may be a good time to revisit your HR policies or meet with your HR staff, to identify ways that you can support the emotional wellbeing of staff who continue to have a physical presence in the office.
To help protect your staff inside and outside of the workplace, you may also want to encourage them to read the official advice from the following bodies:
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