What about the rest of us? Millions of businesses are now facing the possibility of keeping their workers remote. For many companies this is the first time they’ve contended with such a challenge. These are companies who haven’t spent years developing highly functional remote-work cultures. Firms who haven’t specifically selected employees capable of self-motivation and autonomous productivity. Some may have little or no experience with a remote work policy.
Today, in this new reality, every dense office environment may now (or soon) have to consider a plan for office closure and a 100% locally mandated work-from-home situation. Closures will be triggered by one or more of these external conditions:
Public transit closures
Regional quarantines which interrupt commute routes
CDC or regional public health guidelines or emergency orders.
Intense pressure from employees unwilling to come to the office
Conditions could change in your community without notice. In other words, develop your plan NOW.
BUSINESS OWNERS AND EXECUTIVES Set Your Hours: Some workers may be stuck working odd hours if they lose daycare, if schools are closed, or if they’re caring for a friend or relative who is ill. Set core hours (say 10am to 2pm) where everyone is expected to be reachable. Outside of that, people may have to work when their schedule permits.
Conduct daily standup meetings: Working at home can be lonely and isolating. Get everyone to show up on-time for a daily video call with their team. Give managers a chance to recap priorities and deadlines and require everyone to be present to acknowledge them. Make sure everyone speaks, and recaps what they completed yesterday and what they’ll be working on today. An alternative method is daily written briefings from each teammate to his or her supervisor with similar information.
Get on Chat: If you’re not on a chat tool like Slack, do it now. This is a product you can adopt in less than a week. Your team will benefit significantly from moving certain communications away from email, and you’ll gain back some of the immediacy you’ll lose by being apart from each other.
Videoconferencing is Essential If you’re not on a video communication tool like Zoom, your team will benefit significantly from easily convene 1-on-1, team and all-hands meetings regularly. Recruiters will need this for interviewing. Best practice: Conduct video chats with your team, even if you have no visuals to present. A furrowed brow isn’t visible on an email, and you may avoid confusion or frustration with a visual check-in with your colleagues.
Phones: Ideally your phones are already on a VOIP system (premise or hosted)
Be ready to route your phone calls.
Consider phone trees and their endpoints
Set up direct inward dial numbers so callers can get to people directly
Do you need to change outgoing greetings? (regular business hours, expectations of returned calls, reminding callers that your location is open or closed for business)?
ASAP — Confirm that your office directory has everyone’s up-to-date mobile and home numbers.
Breaks: All that commute time your staff spends each week just returned as a dividend. Some of your staff will literally get hours back each day. Encourage people who might be distracted with certain non-work items to do those during what would otherwise be their commute time. These include gym, taking walks, watching Netflix, and other types of breaks.
EMPLOYEES WORKING AT HOME Connectivity: Your internet connection may go down at home, especially if your neighbors are all staying home. Learn how to do tethering from your phone (a number of cellular providers make this option available) so your computer can still connect. Alternatively, get a portable WiFi device from your mobile carrier.
Data: Your “upstream” traffic (the speed that info leaves your house) is almost certainly slower than your downstream traffic. This is usually just fine, as we watch more videos than we send to YouTube. This may, however, mean that the quality of your video and audio on any online conferences you attend may be diminished. This is normal.
Phones: If you take a lot of calls on your office phone, work with your company to get your extension forwarded to your mobile phone. Or see if you can use a “softphone” program on your computer to take calls from the office.
Background noise: When on the phone or in a videoconference, try your best to maintain a quiet and clean work environment. But kids or pets in the office may be unavoidable. Don’t worry — most research shows people get more done each day working remotely than at the office.
OFFICE MANAGERS Don’t forget the office: If possible, maintain a few key personnel at your office each business day.
Identify employees who don’t need public transit or won’t have kids at home. They can maintain networks, find and scan important paper files for people, receive deliveries and mail, and make runs to the bank. Their health won’t be at high risk because the office will be mostly empty and you’ll rest easier knowing your workplace is being watched.
Make changes: Reroute office deliveries whenever possible. Cancel or postpone nonessential office services (Coffee, catering, drinking water deliveries, etc).
Get a webcam and point it at your front door.
Cameras from Nest or Wyze can be set up in less than an hour. Or you can install a Ring doorbell in an afternoon. Keep a recording of who’s coming and going. Physical security is more important than ever when an office is mostly empty. Don’t be an easy target for burglary during this difficult period.
HUMAN RESOURCE TEAMS As an HR professional, a moment like this is your chance to demonstrate extraordinary value to your organization — to preserve productivity, insulate your company from risk, and keep your teams feeling educated and informed.
Daily accountability & supervision: You’ll need accurate records when you try to sort out payroll and time off balances later. You also need to avoid wage and hour disputes that may arise later when nobody can remember what actually happened. So keep accurate time records.
You need clear auditable records of who is officially working (vs on leave) every single day.
Who’s really working?
Who’s WFH? Who’s at the office today?
Who’s taking sick leave, and who’s keeping track of everyone’s sick leave?
Project Visibility: While you’re at it, require employees to attribute time to projects and cost centers every day. When managers are separated from their teams, it’s surprisingly difficult to be aware of what work is going into which projects, and to track progress on work against the time expended.
Communicate changes to HR policies
If a worker has a child home from school and doesn’t have backup childcare, can that person be considered working from home, or are they unable to put in a regular day’s work? Whatever you decide, your policies should be clear & consistent.
What happens when sick workers exhaust their sick leave allocations? Will you extend sick benefits temporarily? Will you need to tap their vacation time?
Will your firm create exceptions? Will you alter your policies?
Consider expanding sick leave if you expect lengthy illnesses
Expand unpaid leave options
Consistency is critical to minimize disputes later
Communicate clearly any changes to HR policy. If temporary policies contradict your existing Employee Handbook, indicate that a new directive supersedes existing HR documentation.
Adjust recruiting plans
If you’re still hiring to fill open positions, be ready to change your interview processes. Have a plan to video conference with candidates and ask your team be ready to interview remotely.
Consider the use of take-home assignments and practical exercises. When your ability to judge a candidate’s presence is diminished, you’ll need more non-behavioral signals to work with.
If your team is scattered and unable to work normal hours, candidates may need to interview with different people at varying times. Make sure someone is coordinating availabilities and monitoring no-shows, either by the candidates or by the team
Think very hard about whether you’d extend a candidate an offer if you can’t meet them face-to-face. You may want to suspend recruitment until the situation grows less severe.
FINANCE DEPARTMENTS Quickbooks: If you’ve been using Quickbooks Desktop in your office, you’ll need to connect to your office to get to your data. If you’ve been considering moving to the cloud, Quickbooks Online will make accessing your data much easier and enable more distributed access. Consider a QuickBooks hosting company like Right Networks to move your desktop edition to the cloud.
Payroll: You should be able to do your payroll completely from a web connection. If you can’t do this, look at Gusto or another payroll service that’s more modern and convenient for simple editing and upkeep.
Invoicing: If you aren’t invoicing your customers electronically, look at Bill.com or another online invoicing tool, both for sending invoices as well as paying them. Doing this work electronically is not only easy but will reduce (and eventually eliminate) the need for any paperwork.
Expenses: Your employees will still have expenses, and you may need to add certain unforeseen expenses such as “home internet usage” if they’re using their home connection for work. Clarify your work-from-home reimbursable items and communicate that policy now. You don’t want to be haggling over expenses later.
Receivables and Banking: If your business relies on paper checks in the mail, you need to make sure your mail is being securely received at the office or redirected elsewhere.
If your controller can’t be in the office, have someone at the office scan checks, upload the scans to a secure location (DropBox, Google Drive, etc) so they can be processed by another person remotely in your receivables system or accounting software.
If you rely on once-a-week trips to the bank, do everything possible to maintain that frequency.
Purchasing: Many companies are going to start losing track of authorized purchases when they stop having face-to-face contact. Immediately, cancel all verbal approvals for purchasing. If you don’t have a procurement (P.O.) system in place, consider one of the many tools available, some at no cost. At a minimum, set up a shared spreadsheet where purchase requests are logged and approved. A system like Google Sheets will show all changes and who made them, so you’ll have an auditable trail. Get your credit card app installed on your phone or enrolled in Apple Pay so you’ll be notified instantly when large charges surface.
IT DEPARTMENTS Help-Desk Staffing: Your team resources will be stretched. Everyone will have new work-from-home helpdesk issues.
Establish longer helpdesk hours (if possible).
Stagger some shifts of your tier 1 people. Make very clear how employees can request assistance (see Ticketing below).
Since a whole new variety of devices (like personally-owned computers) will be in use, take suitable precautions to protect your office network.
Limit VPN access to only those with demonstrated need and with approved devices.
Home VPN subnets that overlap with office addressing will likely have issues.
Security: You are more vulnerable to phishing and social engineering attacks when everyone is working over email and chat. How do you tell an authorized SMS from your CEO from a fake one? Impersonation attacks and spear phishing can be mitigated by the use of two-factor authentication (TFA), and Google and Microsoft email systems do an excellent job of warning of phishing messages.
Remind everyone to be vigilant of text messages and emails, even ones that appear to originate from authorized sources.
Phish your own staff, see who falls for the scams and send them tutorial links to help diminish real phishing victims. Sophos provides a phishing tool for exactly this purpose.
Discourage the emailing of files between staff, opting for links to cloud drive locations.
Encourage people to complain to avoid them initiating shadow IT efforts that will merely circumvent all your systems to reduce friction. If you want them to use Box or Dropbox exclusively, say that. If they are disallowed from using non-approved services, say that.
One reason to have all traffic come through VPN is so your network reports can show unauthorized service activity by user.
Ticketing: Initial demand for support may exceed your resources.
If you don’t have an IT ticketing system in place, set up a Zendesk account now. You won’t know who’s dealing with which requests without one.
Publish a clear “what we will and won’t support” list so that you’re not stuck getting home USB printers to work.
Set up macros to produce immediate answers to commonly-requested items like VPN connections, how to reset passwords, what to do if 2-factor authentication isn’t working.
Phone: Try to use soft-phones instead of relying on local mobile numbers.
VOIP systems should fail over to mobile numbers if premise locations have issues. Most modern VOIP carriers offer this kind of disaster routing so even if someone has a problem with their soft phone or work-from-home desk phone, they can still receive calls while you’re troubleshooting.
Get Teamviewer or other screen-sharing tool for remote assistance.
Use the QuickSupport feature to ensure your techs are only connecting to computers with the permission of the other party.
Get floater laptops: Load up on a few spare devices.
Everyone at Costco is buying hand sanitizer, there are plenty of inexpensive laptops available.
Rather than lose a tech for 3 hours of remote troubleshooting, just ship the employee a loaner computer.
Ship problematic devices back to the office and put them on a pile which you’ll work on later.
Your staff time is precious, and you can’t afford to have people completely monopolized because of an inexpensive but elusive hardware or software bug.
Take care of your team:
Praise and acknowledge your IT people who will likely be working harder and dealing with more anxious and stressed employees. Their well-being is essential in order for them to provide service to your other staff.
AFTERMATH When your business returns to normal, re-think what it means to require people to be in the office all the time. See what worked, see what didn’t. Do “blameless post-mortems” to design better results the next time this occurs. You may end up realizing that your people only need to be physically at the office periodically. One desk per person may not be a required ratio. Re-think your real estate and office layout requirements. The law firm of the future may be WeWork style desks that people use occasionally, with admin staff being the only assigned workspaces.
If your business survives this kind of trauma, it will likely come out stronger as a result. You’ll learn what works and doesn’t work well, you’ll have adjusted your procedures to increase location independence, time-shifting, and lowered your reliance on physical proximity and paper. LINKS Articles on remote working and managing remote staff:
Collaboration and Project Management
Remote management and support: