The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a strain of coronavirus, has come with a side effect none before it has evoked: Companies all over the world are sending employees home to work.
In the past, closing the office to protect workers meant shutting operations down. But remote work is part of our fabric now, and that changes how we face challenges like COVID-19. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29% of workers had the option to work from home in 2017 to 2018, and 25% worked from home at least occasionally.
I’ve worked from home either full time or as a side hustle since 2011. For those of us used to the lifestyle, sending your workforce home to do jobs they do on computers all day in the office seems like a no-brainer.
But if it’s new to you and your employees, this sudden shift to remote work is probably overwhelming. You’ve got to get a workforce up to speed with unfamiliar technologies and an unusual work environment, all while everyone is on edge about a spreading pandemic.
Putting a solid plan in place among company leadership before you send employees home can help set everyone up for success in the uncertain weeks or months to come.
What Leadership Needs to Know to Prepare for Remote Work
Anyone in leadership in your company should know their role in addressing this crisis. Their reports will naturally turn to them for answers and direction.
Determine a cohesive message and plan before making any announcement, and determine who should deliver that message to whom. Will executives tell directors, directors tell managers, and managers tell their teams? Or will it come as a single notice from executives to the entire staff? Should managers attempt to answer their reports’ questions, or will you designate a point person? And are your employees prepared to work from home?
Logistics to Address Before Sending Your Workforce Home
Before you communicate with your employees, discuss these issues with the right stakeholders in your leadership:
- Equipment. Do employees have the proper equipment to do their jobs? Consider their access to computers, printers, phones, and related equipment and office supplies, such as a monitor, mouse, and printer paper and ink. If they don’t have it, can you provide it?
- Software. Do employees have access outside the office to programs necessary to do their jobs? Consider whether your security measures or network settings restrict access to email, communication apps, customer relationship management and workflow software, and any proprietary services if employees are on personal equipment or an unrecognized Wi-Fi network.
- Reimbursement. If you can’t provide technology and supplies, do you need to set up a method of compensation for equipment and supplies employees provide themselves during this time?
- Technical Support. Who can employees contact for technical support, and how should they reach out? What methods are in place for remote technical support? For example, do employees need to download remote desktop software like AnyDesk?
How to Talk to Your Employees About Working From Home
Employees are likely to have a lot of questions if they aren’t used to working from home. Anticipate what you can so your initial message can address these concerns.
Among the questions to prepare answers for are:
- Why is the office closing?
- How long will the office be closed?
- When will employees know more? For example, if you’re closing for an indefinite period, when will you check in with more information and how?
- Who can employees contact for more information?
- Will anything about the workday change? Should employees plan to work normal hours, attend recurring meetings, and hit previously set targets?
It’s also wise to work these points into your messaging:
- This Isn’t a Vacation. Talk to employees about work-from-home productivity, and set clear expectations. If typical productivity isn’t a reasonable expectation, what is? Since parents may have children who are also facing school closures, talk to them about working from home when you have kids.
- The Workday Still Ends. Without an office to arrive at and leave, remote work can blur workday boundaries. Reassure employees they don’t have to work outside their regular hours, and encourage them to practice work-life balance while working from home.
- Remind Employees of Their Health Care Coverage. Ask a human resources representative to prepare to answer questions like whether your company’s health insurance plan covers COVID-19-related health care, testing, and hospitalization.
- Remind Employees of Their Sick-Leave Options. Even if you think everyone knows the sick-leave policy, including a reminder in your messaging lets employees know you care about their health and encourages them to take time off if they’re sick, even while remote. Also make them aware of their options under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and stay abreast of the U.S. Congress’ progress with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and other legislation for paid sick leave, food assistance, and free testing.
Remote Work Technology & Best Practices
In your messaging, also make employees aware or remind them of available remote work technology. Include best practices and tips to make it run smoothly.
Even if you already have remote work technology in place, employees can still run into critical issues if they don’t use it regularly.
Designate a few employees (or a few per department) as remote tech ambassadors. Some people naturally explore and tinker with new apps and will know these programs top to bottom by the end of the day. Have them help set best practices and write up fact sheets for everyone else, and designate them as a point person for employees with questions. That spreads the burden around and keeps your managers and technical support team from being overwhelmed with basic questions like, “How do I enable video on Zoom?”
Your company is almost certainly already set up with email, and your employees are likely comfortable using the programs for internal and external communication.
Your main roadblock with email is likely to be teaching employees a new way of accessing it. Ensure employees know how to access their inboxes from any equipment and on any network. And set up a way for them to contact the right people for help if they’re locked out because of a password change or other issue.
The second issue with email — which could be a problem whether your workforce is remote or not — is setting boundaries. Now is the time to establish or reiterate best practices for your staff, especially whether you expect them to respond to emails outside working hours.
It’s also time to determine what kinds of conversations should happen over email versus another platform, such as Slack, because text-based communication is likely to ramp up while workers are remote.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to implement the use of a chat app for your company. While your team works remotely, chat apps are far more practical than email for quick communication. Most are pretty fast and simple to set up. Popular options include:
- Slack, which is a web, desktop, and mobile app for any size team. Build channels around teams, projects, events, or any topic. It’s free for any number of users, saving up to 10,000 recent messages. Or upgrade for $6.67 or $12.50 per month for additional features and unlimited message history. In response to the COVID-19 virus, Slack is offering free paid plan upgrades to companies working on coronavirus research, response, or mitigation if you email email@example.com.
- iMessage or Text Message. If your whole team is on Mac or iPhone, use the built-in iMessage app for one-to-one or group chats. Regular text messaging may also be a simple, temporary solution if your team members are comfortable sharing their personal phone numbers with co-workers.
- Voxer, a web, iOS, and Android app that enables asynchronous voice communication. Voxer lets you record voice memos and send to group or one-on-one chats in real time for recipients to listen anytime. Individuals can sign up for free, and businesses can upgrade to a paid account starting at $8.33 per user per month to create a private network and dedicated user accounts.
As with email, set best practices for chat communications. Do you expect employees to respond any time of day now that you can reach them right on their phone?
To avoid overwhelming your staff and sending mixed signals, share guidance with them about when it’s best just to make a phone call. A chat conversation that requires more than two or three messages back and forth can become convoluted fast. Encourage remote employees to talk through complicated issues over the phone or via video conference instead.
Many companies have video conferencing systems in place. But few employees are truly comfortable using them.
It’s important to have remote tech ambassadors in place to troubleshoot and make everyone else comfortable. Technology problems during meetings waste a ton of time and discourage employees from connecting while they’re remote.
Video conferencing options include:
- Zoom. Quickly dominating the market in video conferencing, Zoom is one of the most robust services for its price. Mix and match free hosts, who have a 40-minute meeting limit, and Pro ($14.99 per month) or Business ($19.99 per month) hosts, who get additional features and meetings up to 24 hours.
- Google Hangouts Meet. This video conferencing service by Google automatically integrates with Google Calendar and comes included with a G Suite account, which costs between $6 and $25 per user per month. Or any Gmail user can host a meeting through the service for free. Google is offering free access to advanced capabilities to businesses and educators who already use G Suite. Advanced features include larger group calls, more streaming viewers, and the ability to record meetings.
- Skype. This desktop and mobile app from Microsoft was a pioneer in video chat. It includes video, voice calls, and instant messaging, and any Skype user can also get a local phone number for VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol (Internet-based), calls. You can sign up for a free business account through Microsoft Teams or upgrade for $5 or $12.50 per user per month for more features.
- Loom. This asynchronous communication tool offers a unique value. Rather than a video conference, Loom lets you record your screen, voice, and (if you choose) face to quickly send messages and tutorials. Anyone can create a free account to make videos, and recipients can watch videos without signing up. Sign up for a paid account for $4 per user per month to get access to advanced editing features plus unlimited videos. Through July 1, 2020, Loom is removing the 25-video recording limit on free accounts in response to the COVID-19 virus.
Write up best practices and tips to help your employees settle into your video conferencing service. They’ll be frustrated and reluctant if you simply set up virtual meetings and expect them to figure out the technology on their own.
In your best practices, address these issues:
- Review the Settings. Recommend settings for all employees. For example, are sound and video on or off automatically at the start of a meeting? Can a meeting start if the organizer isn’t present? Does the program have access to their computer’s audio and speakers or those of headphones? Encourage employees to take time in their workday to review their settings and become comfortable with the software.
- Sign in Five Minutes Before Meetings. Everyone should be available to join a video conference at least five minutes early to allow time to solve technical issues.
- Make It a Phone Call if You Can. Video conferencing is ideal if employees are comfortable with the software and can quickly hop on a call. A phone call is probably better for a quick chat if employees aren’t savvy with video or a face-to-face visual isn’t necessary. Technical problems could turn a five-minute conversation into a 30-minute troubleshooting session.
- Test Your Internet Connection. Anyone can check their Internet speed for free by visiting Fast. Minimum speeds vary depending on the conferencing service. If someone has a bad connection, allow them to join a conference by phone. Most services include this option.
- Don’t Troubleshoot During a Meeting. Encourage meetings to start and end on time as much as possible. The organizer can follow up with someone who had technical difficulties after the meeting. That prevents a single person’s tech troubles from derailing everyone’s schedule.
If your company needs a phone system while employees are out of the office, a VoIP service could be the solution. These let you make and receive phone calls through the Internet with a dedicated number over a desktop or web app.
You can set up many of these services online in minutes, and a VoIP service should work over most Internet connections. Just ensure your service doesn’t require a physical PBX box setup. (A PBX box is like an Internet router and modem. Most don’t need it.)
Tons of VoIP providers exist to serve businesses. For a quick setup in a pinch, look into:
- Grasshopper. This brand offers a suite of remote work tools, including phone calls and texting. It’s offering up to $50 off for new customers. Plans start at $26 per month for one number with up to three extensions.
- RingCentral. For a monthly fee between $20 and $35 per user based on the features you want, RingCentral offers unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada, messaging, faxing, and audio and video meetings. Get a free trial that includes up to five users, two phones, and 50 minutes of domestic calls. It’s offering three months of free service to educators, health care providers, and nonprofits in response to the COVID-19 virus.
- Google Voice. A great option if you already use G Suite, Google Voice lets employees make and receive phone calls from a business number on a desktop or mobile app. It integrates with other Google products, including Calendar and Hangouts Meet. Plans run between $10 and $30 per user per month.
Depending on how you operate, you may still have customers trying to reach you at your old numbers. Each of these companies lets you port existing numbers or set up call, text, and voicemail forwarding to the VoIP service.
You may only have to forward calls from a main line and encourage employees to let their clients know to use the temporary number, or you can forward each line to employees’ temporary numbers.
An even simpler solution is to have employees update their voicemail greetings to direct customers toward a better way to get in touch during this period — via email, their personal cell, or a temporary VoIP number.
Need contracts signed while you and your team are isolated? E-signature services make it easy to sign and store digital documents.
Most services charge a monthly subscription per user and offer a free trial to start. Common e-signature methods and platforms include:
- Desktop tools. If your documents are simple, you can skip the subscription to an e-signature service. Many free desktop apps let users store a signature and mark up PDF documents, including Apple’s Preview and Microsoft’s PDF Annotate and Fill.
- RightSignature lets you send documents for signatures, including hand-drawn digital signatures. Start with a free trial, then pay $60 per month for up to three users.
- DocuSign lets you send documents for signatures for between $10 and $40 per user per month. Its premium Agreement Cloud includes apps to prepare, sign, and manage contracts. You can buy up to three users online but have to call to set up more.
- HelloSign is an e-signature service that integrates with Dropbox (which owns it), Google Drive, OneDrive, Slack, Salesforce, and other services to store or share signed contracts automatically. It’s free for one user for up to three signature requests per month or $13 per month for unlimited. Allow up to five users for $40 per month, or contact the company for an enterprise solution.
Document Creation & Storage
Document creation and storage platforms make your employees’ lives easier, especially while they work remotely. They let everyone work and update a single document, record changes automatically, and make comments directly in the document. The documents live in the cloud, so anyone you grant access to can view or edit them from anywhere.
The two most popular document creation and storage services are:
- Google Drive, which is the star of real-time collaboration in the cloud. Create, share, and collaborate on text documents in Docs, spreadsheets in Sheets, and slide decks in Slides with viewing, editing, or commenting permissions. You can store files in any format in your Drive and give access to people within and outside your organization. Drive is compatible with Microsoft products, so you can edit Word docs and Excel sheets within Google and save your tracked changes and comments in the Microsoft file format. It’s free for any Gmail user or included with a paid business G Suite account.
- Microsoft Office 365, which lets you store files and collaborate in real time in many of your favorite MS tools, including Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Microsoft Teams. Pay between $5 and $12.50 monthly per user with an annual commitment.
If faxing is a common practice at your company, set up an account with an online fax service that lets employees send faxes from their computer or mobile device without any paper or a fax machine. If it’s less common, alert employees to these services and simply agree to reimburse them for any faxes they send.
Pricing for online fax services is typically per-page pay-as-you-go or monthly with a page limit. Popular online fax services include:
- HelloFax, which lets you bring an existing fax number if you have one or set up a new one. It integrates with Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, and Evernote. Cost is $9.99 per month for 300 pages sent or received and five senders, $19.99 per month for 500 pages and 10 senders, or $39.99 per month for 1,000 pages and 20 senders. There’s no setup fee. The free plan allows your employees to send up to five free faxes.
- eFax, which includes online faxing, storage and file sharing, and an e-signature service. You can also download a desktop app for Windows. There’s a $10 setup fee, then you can pay $16.95 per month for 150 pages sent and 150 received, $19.95 for 200 pages sent and 200 received, or contact the company for a customized corporate plan.
- MetroFax, which lets you fax from email, desktop, or mobile apps. You can sign up for a new number or bring an existing one. Cost is $9.95 per month for 500 pages sent or received, $12.95 per month for 1,000 pages, or $35.95 per month for 2,500 pages — no setup fee. You can use the service free for one month.
Task Management & Communication
You may already have software in place for task management. Now is an excellent time to check in with employees about best practices for the platforms because remote work relies on these running smoothly with all information in the right place.
If you don’t, it’s time to implement one to ensure clear communication around to-do’s and expectations while employees are remote.
Popular workflow management tools include:
- Trello, a simple go-to for project management through a kanban board, a visual project management system that looks like a virtual bulletin board. It’s free to use with any size team on up to 10 boards, and you can upgrade any time and pay a monthly fee per user starting at $9.99 for unlimited boards and more features.
- Asana, which lets you assign tasks to team members and view work as a kanban board, Gantt chart (a type of bar chart useful for viewing timelines), simple list, or calendar. You can include project information and chat with assignees and other team members within tasks. You can also collaborate with up to 15 teammates for free or pay a monthly fee between $10 and $25 per user for more users and features.
- Basecamp, which stands out from competitors with a unique look and way of organizing work. Organize work around projects, and keep communication about each project within its message board and group chat, along with tasks and documents related to the project. Cost is a flat fee of $99 per month, and you can start with a 30-day free trial.
Employee Monitoring Software
It’s probably not necessary to monitor your employees’ behavior while they work from home. Employees tend to be more productive working from home than when they’re in office, according to several studies, including a 2015 Stanford study published in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, which found a 13% increase in productivity among employees who worked from home over the study’s two-year period.
Especially given the research, carefully consider the message you’re sending your employees if you monitor them and how that could influence the way they feel about working for you. But if it puts your mind at ease, time-tracking tools let you see how employees use their time and verify the work they’re logging.
Two useful tools for monitoring your employees are:
- Time Doctor, which includes time tracking, automated screen capture, chat monitoring, and website and app monitoring. Get a free 14-day trial, then pay per user per month.
- HiveDesk, which automatically tracks time employees spend on projects and generates timesheets. You can set it to take screenshots of employees’ screens at random intervals. Its plans support up to 20 users, but you can work with HiveDesk to create a custom plan for more users.
Through virtual meetings over video chat, phone, or email, business leadership can put a solid continuity plan in place. The goal is to ensure employees can get answers to their questions, learn how to use remote work technology, and know what results they need to achieve during these unusual workdays.
A sudden shift in the workday is hard for anyone to absorb. For employees used to coming to the office every day, suddenly working from home can throw off their productivity and ability to collaborate effectively with co-workers. In fact, for employees working from home for the first time, it’s best to give them tips to increase productivity when working remotely.
But understanding the tools and setting best practices for everyone keeps new technology from derailing your company’s productivity and frustrating your employees.
Is your workforce working from home for the first time? What issues have you encountered?