COVID-19 has forced many businesses and organizations to enter a new way of working that may be unfamiliar to some. Yes, I’m talking about remote work. According to a recent Robert Half survey, a majority of office workers have already transitioned to remote work, with just 2% planning to do so soon.
Employees Weigh In
Additional research from Clutch finds that 66% of employees are working from home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including 44% who are working remotely 5 days or more per week. To put these data into perspective, Clutch found that before the pandemic, only 17% of employees worked remotely 5 days or more per week.
I’m not a math expert, but I do know that’s a lot of people who are new to this “new” way of work. And as we’re all starting to learn (or as some already knew), remote work comes with its own unique perks and challenges. Clutch respondents identified both the pros and the cons to working remotely; the pros include:
- No commute (47%),
- A more flexible schedule (43%), and
- Not having to dress up (33%).
On the flip side, employees report that collaborating with colleagues (33%), interruptions and distractions (27%), and sticking to a routine (26%) are the most difficult challenges associated with working from home.
Employers Do, Too
Business leaders and employers have had to adapt quickly, and many have done so successfully, yet there is still so much uncertainty; remote work is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to getting ahead of COVID-19.
West Monroe Partners took a snapshot of employers’ response to the crisis to gauge what actions these leaders are taking, how they predict the current crisis will differ from the last recession, and what areas of their business will be fundamentally altered in the long run.
Preparedness and response to the downturn are mixed. According to the findings, only half of C-level leaders say their organization monitors a set of internal and external indicators that initiate a recession plan. One in four respondents say they haven’t needed to act on the downturn yet.
The speed at which this crisis emerged has created an extreme level of uncertainty. The most common primary concern in the C-suite? The unpredictable behavior of partners, employees, and clients in this environment. I’m almost positive that the uncertainty is weighing heavily on everyone right now.
Remote working has reached a tipping point. The top priority for more than one-third of respondents is managing a remote workforce (ahead of cutting expenses). And 42% said the crisis will fundamentally alter their organization’s approach to remote working in the long term.
We’ve come a long way in the remote working world. It went from a trendy, super exclusive perk that only start-ups and tech companies offered to something almost every worker has now been forced to do. Even my mom, who was a little hesitant at first, is now a remote worker, and she absolutely loves it!
Adjusting to the ‘New Norm’
“While the adjustment from traditional work routines to telecommuting has caused disruptions for small business owners and employees, it’s important to look at the potential benefits that come along with our ‘new normal,’” says Matt Baker, Senior VP of Strategic Planning at FreshBooks. “In conversations with our wide network of self-employed professionals and entrepreneurs, we’re hearing that benefits fall into the realm of costs and productivity.”
Saving mindless dollars. Telecommuting may not be the desired form of working and collaborating, but many who commute to work are finding big cost savings in monthly public transit passes, gasoline, parking, etc., Baker says.
On top of the commute to and from, folks are also less likely to eat out when they have a kitchen full of quick snacks and ingredients to cook meals. Baker suggests that because of this, employees are able to save money instead of eating at those addicting coffee and sandwich shops down the street from the office.
Taking advantage of the virtual world. Luckily in today’s innovative age, there’s a plethora of tools to help enhance productivity, Baker says. But there are drawbacks. “We’ve all fallen into the rabbit hole of scrolling on social media and finding new recipes on the web—when we realize 20 minutes of procrastination and distraction have gone by,” he adds.
This has led to a decrease in productivity for many, but Baker suggests that by integrating social media-blocking tools for custom hourly slots, it can remove the urge to engage in addictive distractions. For many employees who are forced to share their home offices with spouses and school-aged children, we sadly do not have a solution for how you can tune them out or “block” them for certain hours.
5 Tips for Adjusting to Remote Work
“We understand the difficulties in telecommuting and adjusting to virtual collaboration, non-ideal workspaces and easy distractions,” Baker says, but fortunately, he’s got some best practices and tips for small business owners beginning the telecommuting journey:
- Filter through tools. Many small business owners are overwhelmed by the long lists of available tools and technology for collaborating, video chatting, etc. The short of it: Don’t just do what’s “popular” or at the “top,” Baker suggests. “Do some research to see what’s best for you and your team. Sometimes the complex add-ons aren’t worth it, and some virtual video platforms are better for smaller teams versus large teams,” he adds.
- Collaborate with roommates and family. While this might be the hardest of them all, it’s difficult when three or more people under the same roof are hooked up to the Internet. Fortunately, Baker says there are ways to control when others—children especially—can use the Internet to free up networks. “For example, you have a meeting from 1-3 p.m., make sure children download media in advance so they can use certain sites offline while you’re hooked to the Internet,” he adds.
- Etiquette still applies. Almost every virtual chatting platform has tools to control who can speak when, whether participants join the meeting muted or without video, etc. Baker says it’s important to implement these capabilities because not only does it ensure an efficient meeting, but it also follows office etiquette. When you’re in the office, people aren’t speaking over one another and butting in, right? So why should it be any different online?
- Pro tip: Video chatting isn’t always the best route, Baker adds. “Oftentimes when video is turned on, users aren’t as engaged in the conversation because they’re unconsciously worried about what they look like, where to look, and how to sit still.” If meeting attendees appear to be distracted, turn the next meeting into an audio call only.
- Don’t forget about culture: Company culture helps boost morale, enhance creativity, and build team bonding. “Just because we’re working remotely doesn’t mean this is less important—let alone impossible,” Baker adds. He suggests creating virtual happy hours, show-and-tell, coffee chats, and game sessions to help keep your company’s culture alive and your employees engaged.
- Physical workspace matters: Whether you thrive in a coworking space, in a coffee shop, or at home, your workspace matters more than you might think. Baker suggests employees start by creating a morning routine—whether that’s allotting time for coffee, reading, or stretching; this segmented time helps with enhancing focus and productivity and eventually turning these into a habit, he adds. “With most of us working from home now, it’s important to understand the underlying effects of working in the same area you do chores,” he says. “Sometimes our mind can wander to worrying about washing dishes or doing laundry you never did the night before. Be aware of how to balance these tasks with your business to-do list.”
Baker’s tips and best practices are a great way to keep your workforce productive and engaged. Another area you should be focusing on is workplace communication.
Communicating During COVID
As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind,” and with workers permanently “out of sight” for the foreseeable future, communication is more important than ever. But what is the appropriate method for communicating with workers who are forced to go remote?
Zipwhip, a mobile phone operator company, released the findings of a survey of 1,000 businesses and consumers in New York, California, and Washington state—the first regions in the nation to issue comprehensive shelter-in-place orders. The study found that not only are consumers in those states spending more time on cell phones during the coronavirus crisis and relying on them more for news and information, but they’re also changing their communication habits as a result.
I’ll be focusing on the key findings that pertain to the workplace, but you can learn more about the survey results here.
In a crisis, cell phone use and text messaging are the preferred methods of communication. When asked how respondents prefer to receive alerts and important notices from businesses during emergencies like the one we’re currently in, 48% of consumers said they prefer text, compared with 45% who said they prefer e-mail and just 7% who prefer phone calls.
Beyond wanting texts from businesses, consumers also report a desire for local public agencies to adopt texting. During a crisis, 77% of people report wanting to receive texts from local health officials, 59% want texts from police and fire departments, 57% want texts from government leaders, and 48% want texts from relief agencies like the Red Cross.
Texting and screen time are up. The majority of people (56%) have been using their cell phone more since COVID-19 began, and of those people, 46% said they’re using their phone for 4 or more additional hours each day than before COVID-19.
With more workers sharing their home computers with school-aged children, these findings make sense, as employees can use their cell phones to check and respond to e-mails while their children use home computers to complete schoolwork.
In addition, the majority of people (62%) are responding more quickly to text now than they were before COVID-19.
In the absence of in-person collaboration with coworkers, employees turn to text. With shelter-in-place orders closing most businesses and requiring employees to work remotely, people have had to find other ways to communicate with their teams, including texting; 41% of people are texting coworkers more frequently since COVID-19 began.
And of businesses surveyed, 72% said they have used texting as a way to communicate with their employees and staff. Another 64% of businesses reported that their employees are communicating with customers while working from home.
As cell phones start dominating employees’ preferred methods of communication, it makes me wonder how many more work-related e-mails are going to feature emoji. Fortunately, a recent ResumeLab survey sheds some light on this topic and offers insights into whether employees think using emoji in work communications is appropriate.
According to the findings, e-mails that featured emoji were considered professional by 40% of the respondents (vs. 69% when not including them). A staggering 72% are in favor of not adding them to business e-mails.
Unsurprisingly, messages that included emoji were, on average, considered more friendly by 15% more of the survey-takers (though this varied based on e-mail type). Both types of messages were thought of as equally clear in intent with or without the emoji. Similarly, the sentiment of the message was also implicitly understood, suggesting that using emoticons can be superfluous.
However, there is a time and place for everything. For example, coronavirus update announcements were not a good place to show off your emoji expertise, as only 45% of survey-takers considered it professional to do so (vs. 86% when the icons were excluded).
Because text-based communication is now one of the primary ways for workforces to communicate, using emoji is starting to seem somewhat more appropriate, as workers can convey emotion in text using smiley faces and frowns. As we know, when it comes to text, it’s hard to get a sense of the person’s tone, but using emoji can help resolve that issue.
Let’s face it: The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed not only how we live but also how we work. What used to be frowned upon back in the day—using emoji in work e-mails, sharing a home office/computer with multiple family members during office hours, and not getting dressed for work—may now be more acceptable given the current circumstances. Will this new way of work last? I don’t have the answer to that question, but for those who prefer remote work, I will say this: Enjoy it while it lasts!