My husband and I own a 12-person design firm and, like thousands of other small-business owners in 2020, we had to make big changes in the way we worked. Our new normal involved sending our employees home for six weeks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic while a shelter-in-place order was active. Although it has since been lifted, we’ve made working from home a permanent option for employees. As it turns out, “getting back to normal” actually meant creating a completely new normal.
Managing employees from a distance has been a challenge, but it’s certainly not impossible. In fact, as working from home has become a daily reality instead of an uncommon occurrence, we’ve been able to build better remote work strategies for employees. While it took a week or two to get our bearings, the right tools has made remote management easier and more efficient.
Small-Business Work-From-Home Strategies
If your short-term plan for remote work has suddenly become a long-term strategy, you’re not alone. Intermedia reports that 57% of small-business owners plan to continue offering work-at-home options for employees long after social distancing mandates end. COVID-19 has made small-business owners rethink the way they run the day-to-day operations to protect employees while still maintaining a profit.
I’m happy to report we’ve struck a balance in our business, and these key strategies played a part.
1. Set Expectations
Clear expectations help your employees stay focused when working from their home offices. Working remotely automatically fosters a more casual environment, but you should still set boundaries so your employees know exactly what you expect. Be realistic and acknowledge that it could take time to settle into a new work-from-home routine. Send out a work-from-home guide that helps answer frequently asked questions about issues like:
- The specific hours you expect employees to be available
- The allowed amount of time before employees respond to texts, emails, or other forms of communication
- How best to communicate with the rest of the team
- Specific performance benchmarks or deliverables.
- How to track hours
- Any changes to how employees receive paychecks, such as direct deposit or picking up checks
As you create guidelines, you create a clear path to work-from-home success for employees who might be nervous about keeping up, or even those who could unfairly take advantage of the arrangement. Clear expectations are key in maintaining trust and managing workflow.
2. Focus on Deliverables and Performance
You expect employees to be at the office and focused on working during business hours, but working from home might not be the same case. Home offices are convenient, but they come with distractions, other household members, and family schedules. Expecting a full, uninterrupted 8 hours per day might be setting your employees up for failure and yourself up for frustration.
Instead of focusing on making sure each salaried employee fulfilled their 40 hours per week, we started tracking performance as the main metric. That way, an irregular schedule or disruptions won’t completely derail at-home employees. In this arrangement, the hours worked are less important than what was delivered that week.
Consider what tasks need to be completed and track them to completion. That way, you know exactly what’s being done and don’t need to micromanage your employees’ time at home.
3. Manage Time and Payroll
Even if you decide to make deliverables your focus, you’ll still need a way for both salaried and hourly employees to track their time in order to submit hours for payroll. The tricky part is ensuring that time reporting is honest and accurate. We like Connecteam because it uses GPS to ensure accurate timesheets and on-duty collaboration between team members.
It’s not just to ensure clean accounting, either: Time management apps can help you identify potential areas of concern. When I noticed one employee was clocking too much time on one task, for instance, she received extra video training to help improve her efficiency.
4. Rethink Communication
It’s important to maintain daily check-ins to keep employees on task and foster good communication. We had a quick 15-minute Zoom call at the start of each day where each employee would update us on what they were working on and any issues they needed to address. Making a point to connect was an effective way to start the day — on time — and maintain workplace relationships.
Zoom and Skype make conference calls much easier on your remote workers, but they’re not the only way to stay in touch. Experiment with different services and see which work the best for your group. Some communication methods to consider include:
- Messaging apps like Slack or Gmail Chat
- Google Hangouts
- Project management services like Trello
- Social media channels
5. Reduce Meetings
While you’re rethinking communication, evaluate when and why you call a meeting. Working from home could be complicated for your employees, and as a small business you have the opportunity to reduce work-related stress. It might seem counterintuitive, but fewer meetings could be the best way to encourage a healthy workflow so employees aren’t stopping work for lengthy calls each day.
Perhaps you could send an email instead of calling a meeting or send a quick message via chat if you need clarification. That way, remote workers can work around family schedules and reply when they have a spare moment rather than waiting for a face-to-face meeting or getting caught up talking about other things. If you do require a video meeting, consider using a transcription service so that those who were sharing workspaces with kids or spouses can catch up when they’re able.
6. Stagger In-Office Schedules
It’s possible to run the design firm mostly online, but there are still times when employees need access to our printer or to drop off plans for clients. During the height of the coronavirus shelter-in-place, we used a staggered schedule to allow employees access to the office and its equipment without violating social distancing guidelines.
A staggered schedule meant assigning “office days” to employees based on their location in the office. Employees who shared an office would come in on opposite days to keep 6 feet apart, and we scheduled face-to-face client meetings on a specific day so the office could be otherwise empty and clients could maintain a healthy distance.
The staggered schedule works on a long-term scale if you have employees who don’t feel comfortable working in an office setting. It’s not just for equipment access; it also maintains a sense of workplace connection and morale for employees to have a day or two of normalcy each week. Just make sure that you have the chance to sanitize high-touch surfaces before the next employees come into the office for their assigned day.
7. Use Accessible Tech
Employees probably won’t have the same setup at home that they do at the office. Still, even if they’re working from their kitchen or tucked away in a closet, their success depends on accessibility. Making sure that your employees have access to a computer, reliable Internet, and shared files makes all the difference in productivity and efficiency.
Services like Dropbox and Google Drive make it easy to collaborate on and share files, while access to tech support helps smooth out any bumps your employees might encounter along the road. It might also be a good time to invest in new devices for the company. If new laptops or tablets help your employees work more effectively at home, they’re worth the upfront costs — and double as write-offs for this year’s taxes.
Phone lines are also a concern if you have fewer employees at the office. Arrange to have calls forwarded to the appropriate employee — your phone service provider can help you with this — and give clear guidelines surrounding when employees need to be available to take work calls. If you have the budget, consider offering a reimbursement for a percentage of employees’ cellphone bills.
Finally, avoid the temptation of implementing new tech and services before you really need them. Whenever possible, employ the tools your employees already use on a regular basis. If they’re comfortable using Google Drive, for example, there’s no reason to suddenly switch to a new file-sharing service. Sticking to the same old reduces training time and lets your employees go straight to work at home.
As a small-business owner, you know that every employee, every client, and every hour really counts. Whether a work-at-home workforce is a short-term solution or you’re gearing up for the long haul, smart strategies ease the transition and reduce disruptions in workflow. Take the time to evaluate and implement better policies and allowing your employees to work from home ensures that a reduction in in-office work won’t mean a reduction in success.
Have you adopted a work-at-home model for your business? What tools or strategies have made the transition easier?