The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced three-quarters of U.S. states to issue stay-at-home orders, impacting nearly 300 million Americans, as of early April. While many states have certain exemptions that allow “essential” businesses to stay up and running, thousands of companies across the country have shifted the majority of their staffs to remote work, whether or not explicitly required to by their state or local government.
This shift can create many logistical challenges for companies: How do they continue recurring meetings? Do they need to reroute desk phones to employee cell phones? Are there any processes that aren’t currently set up to be completely paperless that need to be updated? For some organizations, these are brand-new challenges. Others may have years or even decades of experience with remote staff.
But even for companies that have robust remote work infrastructures in place, there are often challenges with employees themselves. Many employees have little to no experience working remotely. This means they might have issues with dealing with the necessary technology, managing distractions, staying organized at home, or a host of other concerns.
In this feature, we’ll provide some tips and strategies for training and preparing staff for remote work, including advice we received from industry experts.
At this point, it is probably too late for many readers to set up advanced remote working training as part of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the current crisis is not likely to be the last or only time companies want, or need, to shift staff to remote work arrangements.
Advanced training can give employees the tools and skills they need to succeed in a remote environment while they are still in the in-person, face-to-face environment they are used to.
We should note that while it’s great to be able to provide advanced training, it’s never too late to start. Even for companies that have already shifted most, or all, of their staff to remote roles, it’s never a bad idea to provide a broad overview of tools and strategies for making the change a success.
Time Management and Organization
Not all staff are cut out for remote work, but necessity may demand they be as successful as possible nonetheless. Two of the biggest challenges for many when working from home are managing time effectively—including avoiding distractions—and staying organized.
These are skills employees may demonstrate well in the office but struggle to maintain at home. Managers need to be aware of this possibility and provide resources and strategies to help staff address potential challenges.
Remote Communication Etiquette
Just because videoconferencing, e-mail, and instant messaging are the virtual equivalents of in-person meetings and one-on-one interactions doesn’t mean the same “in-person” etiquette and professionalism will naturally translate.
Some individuals seem to lose track of basic etiquette when transitioning to a virtual format, and some rules simply don’t have a counterpart when switching from in-person to virtual.
For example, shouting on calls and using all caps in e-mails and instant messaging can come across the same as shouting in an in-person meeting; proper attire should be worn for video calls; and staff need to be accessible and responsive to one another as though they were still sitting across the hall instead of on the other side of town or the other side of the country.
Companies should provide live training with Q&A, as well as on-demand resources, such as an etiquette guide staff can access as a reference, that cover basic etiquette and professionalism rules.
Remotely Accessible Training Resources
Cornerstone Chief Talent Officer Kimberly Cassady suggests that companies provide online access to learning and development materials, including those focused specifically on how to effectively work remotely.
“For example, if your organization has adopted a more flexible work from home policy, a learning course on how to stay productive when working remotely can help employees manage their tasks and stay engaged,” she says. “Meanwhile, online courses about stress management and mindfulness can help employees navigate worrisome situations—while simultaneously equipping them with important soft skills for the future of work.”
Emotional and Mental Well-Being
Technology, logistics, and work habits are obviously key considerations for training remote workers. But it’s important not to lose sight of the emotional and mental changes that staff with limited to no previous remote work experience might be dealing with.
“Loneliness and depression are major pain points for remote workers, and those that are new to working from home can be negatively impacted by the sudden drop-off in social interaction,” says Peter Jackson, CEO of Bluescape, a California-based software company. “This can lead to a breakdown in collaboration and productivity, especially as those who are used to face-to-face meetings struggle to identify how to establish those same connections virtually.”
To combat this possibility, says Jackson, businesses must double down on team culture. This could include using time at the start of virtual meetings to let staff share their experiences with remote work or just to catch each other up on what’s going on in their lives.
These casual interactions can help maintain team cohesion and give managers the opportunity to identify whether staff seem burned out or disengaged. Jackson suggests these interactions can include virtual equivalents of common workplace social activities like coffee breaks and happy hours.
Many health experts predict that the need to remain isolated to slow the spread of COVID-19 will last months, not weeks. Others argue that the forced transition to remote work many be a long-term trend and the start of the new normal.
Whether to ride out the current pandemic in preparation for a potential future pandemic or simply to save money while boosting engagement and retention, employers around the country are taking a long, hard look at their work-from-home readiness. Employee training is a key part of that equation.