Coronavirus: Four things to consider when encouraging home working


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With almost 600 cases of the new coronavirus confirmed in the UK, businesses are increasingly telling staff to work from home, if they are able to, in order to reduce the impact the virus could have on their operations.

Although the UK is currently in the first of four phases – “contain” –that aim to reduce the spread of coronavirus, an emergency Cobra meeting held by ministers this afternoon is expected to result in a move to the second phase – “delay” – where “social distancing” measures could be considered.

Depending on what these measures are, they could have a significant impact on workplaces’ ability to stay open and operate normally. In the Republic of Ireland, schools, colleges and other public facilities have closed and workers have been told to work from home if possible.

Here, we look at some of the considerations that HR and business leaders need to make when assessing whether staff should work from home – regardless of whether they have been told to self-isolate.

  1. Technology

According to a poll of 81 HR professionals by Incomes Data Research, just 4% of businesses can facilitate their entire workforce working from home, often because employees’ roles are customer-facing or involve providing a practical service, such as driving. Home working is typically available for around a quarter of an employer’s workforce, the research found.

For workplaces where the majority of staff, if not all, are able to work from home, some organisations are trialling home working days to see how the technology copes. Yesterday, Google parent Alphabet asked all of its 100,000 North American staff to work from home to reduce the potential spread of the coronavirus, although offices remained open for staff whose jobs required them to be physically present, while Twitter said it was “strongly encouraging” all of its 5,000 global employees to avoid the office.

Such a shift in working practices can place a lot of pressure on both technology and employees. Chris Biggs, managing director at Theta Financial Reporting, said: “With the advice coming from various sources that working from home may be the safest option, employers and managers need to ensure that they have the necessary measures in place to ensure that their business runs as normal as possible.

“Finding solutions like using remote desktops, call redirecting and online office services are a great way to bring a remote office together as if they were all in one building. Ensuring a clear line of communication with both your team and your clients is imperative to maintaining business as normal.”

  1. Productivity

Yesterday’s Budget included a £175 billion investment in “world-class infrastructure” over the next five years which would boost productivity by 2.5% and add 0.5% a year to GDP growth. However, with many employees set to work from home over the coming weeks, many commentators believe the UK’s productivity could stall.

A survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by Theta Financial Reporting found 26% feel they have not received the required training to do their job efficiently. With this in mind, Biggs advises employers to consider flexible working opportunities to maximise productivity.

“Giving employees the flexibility to work hours that suit them could make them more productive, especially if their family commitments change. Keeping constant, positive conversation streams open, trusting your team, and giving them that element of freedom is a great way to promote morale, a better work-life balance, and maintain productivity away from the workplace,” he says.

Toni Robinson, managing director at consultancy NucleusHR, suggests finding out whether any employees would be prepared to work overtime, bearing in mind compliance with the Working Time Directive, to mitigate against any downtime.

“Look at possible having a pool of employees that are willing to work additional hours should the needs arise, offering incentives, time off in lieu to encourage their commitment throughout the difficult time,” says Robinson.

“Assess the risk of staff shortages, understand which areas have skills shortages and would be further impacted if employees are affected and look to train staff to cover those areas if possible.”

Equally, employers should consider employees’ ability to effectively “switch off” at the end of their working day. Theta Financial Reporting’s survey found 31% regularly exceed the EU’s maximum working limit and 45% believe work laptops and mobile phones mean they never truly switch off and have answered emails in the early or late hours.

Look at possible having a pool of employees that are willing to work additional hours should the needs arise, offering incentives, time off in lieu to encourage their commitment throughout the difficult time,” – Toni Robinson, NucleusHR

  1. Social isolation

One of the common issues with widespread remote working is the risk of staff feeling isolated. Employers must therefore ensure they keep in touch with their team regularly, and not just to establish they are actually working, says Stuart Duff, head of development at psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

“It might not always feel so, but the workplace is an incredibly social environment. Whether it be the camaraderie that comes with sharing a joke or simply taking turns to make a round of tea or coffee, when you’re working remotely, you miss out on these interactions. This might not appear to have a huge impact on job performance, but it does affect inter-team relationships,” he says.

Duff suggests factoring “social time” into conference calls or inviting colleagues to dial in early for a catch-up.

“Where possible, it’s even more beneficial to communicate with video-conferencing facilities such as Skype and Facetime. The ability to make eye contact, and to read facial cues and body language, adds an additional layer of connection which can’t be achieved over the phone.”

John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, says that employers should consider individuals’ personality traits when managing a remote workforce.

“Most of these teams, working from home for the first time, may not have had the chance to trial how they can best work together in these types of settings. Individual team members may enjoy the peace and quiet of home working, or miss the buzz of the workplace,” he says.

“Individuals will experience a change in different ways – some may immediately feel anxious while others will relish the challenge and even the uncertainty that change can bring.”

  1. Trust

Trusting employees to continue to carry out their tasks as normal is key to a successful transition to remote working. However, research from serviced office space provider Offices.co.uk found that many employees were viewing the closure of workplaces as an opportunity to have “two weeks off work”.

Individuals will experience a change in different ways – some may immediately feel anxious while others will relish the challenge and even the uncertainty that change can bring,” – John Hackston, The Myers-Briggs Company

“I spoke to some of our younger members of staff, and I was surprised that rather than be a scary thought, they actively encouraged a shutdown”, explains Jonathan Ratcliffe, managing director at  Offices.co.uk. “It makes you worry that our younger workforce just aren’t taking things seriously.”

Duff says leading a team of people remotely requires trust and a culture of psychological safety, where employees do not fear that their managers distrust them.

He says: “It’s vital that leaders understand the mechanics of trust, in order to identify where it might be missing from their team.

“This hinges, in part, on understanding that there are two types of trust. The first is cognitive trust, which is trust in someone’s experience, knowledge and ability. This can be developed remotely, through means such as conference calls and emails.

“The second type is emotional trust, which determines how much one person likes and believes in another. Emotional trust can only be grown through face-to-face interaction and is therefore much more difficult to establish in a remote workforce.”

As the coronavirus continues to spread at an alarming rate, it is extremely likely that many workplaces will be considering closure in the coming weeks, making it vital to consider remote working preparations now.

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