Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

Using Remote Work as an Emergency Plan for Businesses

At the time of this writing, over 75,467 cases and 2,236 deaths related to the coronavirus have been reported and it continues to wreak havoc in China. Businesses large and small have also been impacted while trying to figure out how to maintain operations and keep people safe. While China is bearing the brunt of the outbreak, companies and industries around the world have been affected.

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Canceled plans, interrupted supply chains, and a proliferation of “closed” signs are indications it won’t be “business as usual” for a while.

To keep staff safe and companies in business, many are allowing—even mandating—staff to work from home. This tactic can be an effective way to separate employees and lessen the risk of contact with the virus.

While working from home may seem like an easy method to implement, this disruption in workers’ normal routines may cause lessened productivity or even added stress. Having an emergency work-from-home plan in place ahead of time can help businesses meet these issues head-on and provide structure.

Given the massive scale of this outbreak and the impact it is having on companies worldwide, this is a good time for every business to evaluate (or create) its emergency work-from-home plan.

Coronavirus and the Impact on Business

Many retail stores and other service providers (like gyms) have shut down. International companies have canceled business travel for the foreseeable future. Some companies have suspended, or are expected to suspend, their production lines. And companies have had staff extend their vacations, work from home, or even take unpaid leave.

While the outbreak impacts companies with a Chinese presence, even those without a physical presence in the country have been impacted. For example:

  • Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley are asking Hong Kong staff to work from home for 2 weeks.
  • Facebook staff who recently visited China are being told to work from home for 2 weeks.
  • Hyundai and Airbus have suspended or altered production due to supply chain interruptions.
  • Ford Motors has asked managers to work from home while factories are shut down.
  • Cruises and tours to and originating in China have been suspended.
  • Disney parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong have been shut, reducing operating income by $175 million.

Challenges of Remote Work During an Emergency

Thanks to the growing popularity of remote work, more companies are offering these flexible arrangements to staff. However, because so many companies and so many employees are working remotely at the same time in China, platforms and service providers that help make remote work possible are facing unexpected challenges.

Due to increased use across the world, some remote collaboration tools are having trouble handling the increased load. Examples include:

  • DingTalk and WeChat Work, popular video conferencing platforms in China, crashed because too many people were trying to video conference at the same time.
  • Collaboration apps like WeLink and Lark also crashed or slowed down.
  • Baidu’s office virtual private network (VPN) overloaded, and employees were asked to stop using it.

Staff may also face other issues, such has not having the tools needed to work remotely (laptop, headset, etc.), not having access to servers or files stored in the office, and not having the knowledge or training to properly use the collaboration tools and VPNs necessary to work off-site.

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While not every challenge can be prevented in an emergency situation, having a plan in place may make the transition smoother.

Creating an Emergency Work-from-Home Plan

Because the spread of the virus may not peak until April, companies will likely feel the effects of this outbreak for a while. Even after the worst has passed, getting back up to speed will take time.

Although some companies had an emergency plan in place, in some cases, their plan hasn’t been adequate to cope with the scale of the outbreak. And companies that did not have an emergency plan had to create one on the fly, with varied results.

Though it’s hard to find the silver lining in this situation, it presents companies with a unique opportunity to evaluate (or create) emergency work-from-home plans. Hopefully, companies never have to use them for a massive medical emergency. But emergency work-from-home plans are also useful during flu season or bad weather days.

Create a Plan for Every Emergency Situation

It’s best to create an emergency work-from-home plan for all situations (flood, tornado, hurricane, earthquake, fire, illness, etc.) long before you ever need it. But it’s not enough to have an emergency policy in the handbook. You need to periodically review and update your plan to accommodate any growth or change.

And don’t forget to test the plan regularly. For example, periodically check in with service providers to make sure they can handle an overload of requests. As noted earlier, online conferencing providers were overwhelmed with traffic, and their platforms failed. Ask what your service provider learned from its experiences or what its contingency plans are if something like this happens in the future.

Have employees ensure they have access to and log-in information for every server, software, program, and computer they will need to use while at home. Do they know how to perform any and all in-office duties from home? A test run will help eliminate any confusion and hiccups when and if it ever comes time to implement.

Establish a Communication Plan

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, information and misinformation travel fast. Have a specific communication plan so your staff are aware that the plan is officially activated.

Make sure employees know exactly how the official word will be delivered and by whom. Will it be via e-mail or a phone call? Will it come from the CEO or department heads? Define very clearly how and by whom the official word will be communicated so misinformation doesn’t spread and create confusion or chaos.

Set Clear Work-from-Home Expectations

Just like your regular work-from-home policy, your emergency work-from-home policy should include clear expectations of staff behavior. An emergency work-from-home policy can be as simple as:

  • Be online during work hours.
  • Be responsive during work hours.
  • Be productive.

Even when you’ve activated your emergency plan and clearly communicated what’s happening, you may still need to make it clear to staff that working from home is not a choice.

Depending on the emergency, some staff may be able to get into the office. And some staff may want to go to the office. Make it clear that this is not a choice and that all staff must work at home. Ensure that all employees understand they will not be losing pay by working remotely and will not be asked to use any sick time or vacation time.

Make Sure Staff Have What They Need

While you can’t audit every employee’s remote situation, it is important to be aware that not all employees have a separate office where they can close a door and work quietly. And not everyone has the most reliable Internet service. Make sure that when you are evaluating your emergency plan and your staff’s performance during the emergency, you take this into account.

Also, remember that in an emergency, employees may not be home alone. Many have partners, children, or even extended family members who are likely impacted—and stuck at home—as well. Make it clear that while employees are expected to work, you understand there may be obstacles that make a full workday difficult.

Even if your company is “business as usual” during an emergency, “usual” takes on a whole new meaning during that time. You may need to communicate to your staff that their health and safety come first in these situations.

Remember that there could be emotional impacts for people during and after an emergency. Their priority may not be work for days, or even weeks, after the crisis ends.

Prep Your Infrastructure

Long before you need to activate your emergency plan, check your infrastructure, and prepare it for an emergency. This goes beyond fire and flood protection. When people work from home, it may be more taxing on your server or your phone line. Make sure it can handle the extra traffic load from outside sources.

As part of your prep plan, contract with platforms that specialize in online collaboration. Figure out if you can get away with audio only or if you really need video. Consider investing in an online project management tool so staff can continue to work on projects together.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that everything will function appropriately in an emergency. What will staff do if online collaboration tools fail or they can’t use online communication platforms? Do they call each other? Rely on e-mail? Have a backup plan for alternative communications ready to go.

Reevaluate and Adjust Course

While the hope is that you never have to activate your emergency work-from-home plan, odds are you will. Hopefully, you won’t have to use it for very long. Once the emergency has passed and operations are back to normal, take some time to debrief and evaluate how the plan worked. Adjust it as necessary, and have it ready to go for the next emergency.

Stay on Track in an Emergency with Remote Work

No matter what your company’s stance is on remote work, utilizing this method during an emergency can keep your company functioning under most circumstances. Not only can this help prevent lost revenue, but it also can help improve staff morale and increase retention.

Rachel Jay is a Content Specialist for the award-winning site FlexJobs. She strives to support those in search of flexible employment opportunities and the companies offering them. Jay also provides information, tips, and insight into the employment world.