The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has led governments around the globe to place restrictions on human interaction. Even state and national governments that haven’t made isolation or quarantine mandatory have discouraged large gatherings and encouraged people to practice social distancing.
This has led to obvious challenges for workplaces around the globe.
For industries that revolve around operating machinery, building houses, serving food or drinks to customers, giving haircuts, or a variety of other in-person tasks, social distancing is almost certainly prohibitive to staying in business.
But for other businesses, work might consist largely of fielding customer support calls made over the phone or submitted online, programming software, reading X-rays, doing accounting checkouts, etc.
In such situations, remote work has become the obvious choice to keep businesses in operation and keep employees on the payroll while maintaining social distancing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
Remote Work Is Really Nothing New
Remote working has been a reality for millions of Americans for years, and it’s often seen as a key job perk for many. But now we find ourselves in a new normal in which the vast majority of those who are still working are doing so from home.
This is certainly a challenge for employees and employers alike. But with any challenge, there is often opportunity for learning and growth. In this feature, we look at what the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it can teach us about remote working and remote learning.
Technical Side of Business Continuity
It’s not an insignificant undertaking to shift a company’s entire workforce to remote work. Digital file sharing, having the necessary equipment for an employee’s home office, and data security are just some of the logistical challenges many companies are no doubt struggling with.
Companies need to learn from these struggles to review and update the technical aspects of their disaster recovery plans—hopefully they have one to begin with—because there is a high probability this won’t be the last time huge numbers of staff are required to work remotely.
“I think that the key takeaway is that everyone needs to be looking into cloud storage for the foreseeable future,” says Charlie Worrall, digital marketing executive with Imaginaire Digital. “I think the big companies will realize that they crippled themselves by not using this kind of technology before.”
Worrall predicts that the upswing in cloud storage investments will be significant. Companies, he says, will realize this is not an isolated situation and may well happen again. He also predicts that using equipment like laptops rather than desktops will become the norm.
“This is due to the fact that so many people are being asked to take home a big bulky desktop, monitor and the peripherals rather than just a laptop,” he says.
Finding the Right Balance Between Professional and Personal
Remote work creates greater distance between coworkers, both physically and emotionally. Staff aren’t stopping to chat in the hallways or lunchrooms when they aren’t in the same building.
Ironically, employees often have tremendous anxiety over letting their personal lives slip into the professional realm when working remotely, eliminating the potential to mitigate the emotional and personal divide.
For example, work-from-home employees on a teleconference often dress like they’re in the office and ensure there are no personal pictures or noisy children and pets sneaking into the video or audio.
While it’s certainly important to maintain professionalism and minimize distractions, employees should understand that it’s not a significant negative if their coworkers or even their bosses see their toddlers or cats—they know they’re there.
Similarly, it’s OK to display some personality in a work-from-home workspace, just as one would in his or her office at company headquarters. These bits of personal insights can help build camaraderie in an organization that is connected largely through fiber optic cables and e-mail.
Too Many Meetings?
In this new business environment, many companies have to cancel recurring meetings for logistics reasons. Either they aren’t set up yet to hold the meetings effectively remotely yet or there are new meetings—needed to facilitate and coordinate the new work paradigm—that took over the time slot.
This can be disruptive, but businesses often find that when they need to cancel recurring meetings temporarily, they know pretty quickly which ones they really need to get back on the calendar and which ones weren’t all that valuable after all.
Accommodating Different Personal Clocks
The 8:00–5:00 workday has become the standard in the United States and around the world. “Work better early in the morning or late at night? Too bad. We’re open 8:00–5:00.”
There’s certainly value in having everyone in the office during the same hours. It facilitates real-time collaboration. But companies that have virtually everyone working from home might find they don’t necessarily need everyone working from home at the same time.
They might require everyone in the organization or in certain departments to be available during a common 2- or 4-hour period reserved for meeting and collaboration time but otherwise just require people to put in a full day’s work without mandating specific hours. Or, they might go even further and not enforce hours at all as long as jobs are getting done and the work is meeting expectations.
Remote working is a necessity right now for thousands of businesses and millions of employees. The threat of COVID-19 will eventually pass, and employers will be able to bring their staff back to the office before too long. But telecommunications technologies continue to evolve and grow; we’re likely to see some new innovations brought on from the necessity of this pandemic.
A New Business Normal?
Employers might find, through this forced experiment, that they maintain and even gain productivity through remote work. Many companies might decide they want to shift increasing numbers of staff to remote work even after the pandemic subsides.
It’s therefore critical to see not only COVID-19’s impact on the workplace as a challenge but also the opportunity to learn how to effectively manage a predominantly remote staff because that may just become the new business normal.