So, depending on where you are, a week or two ago you sent everyone home with a pat on the back and instructions on how to work remotely, and a lot of hopes for a speedy return. Some of you were pretty well prepared, since you already have some telecommuters or maybe you are already partially virtual, but most of you (us!) really weren’t. Sure, you had some tools in place for remote work, but more for occasional use, and certainly not for all employees and weeks at a time.
For many small businesses, just getting anything workable in place has to be considered a victory, and most are probably just relieved that the number of fires to put out is decreasing. Given that this working from home situation is likely to last for a while, however, you may want to take a look at what you’ve done and make some improvements before you settle in to maintenance mode. After all, having an entire company performing almost all business functions at home is a lot different than most normal telecommuting scenarios. Here are a few thoughts to get you going.
- Put a policy in place. If you don’t have one, put some sort of temporary telecommuting policy in place, which outlines your expectations. Even if you already have a policy, you may need or want to deviate from that during these extraordinary circumstances, because things are genuinely different now. After all, some workers will be working on their own devices, others on company computers, and some from paper. Some will work too little, but some will work too much as well, and either can cause business and legal issues. Either way, you’ve got to set our your expectations and requirements or your employees won’t know what they are.
- Keep the team together. Even a close-knit group begins to fall apart with separation, so you’ll want to consider ways to keep the team connected. Sure, you can have a regular staff meeting, and your colleagues can e-mail or call, but that’s a little different than the around-the-water-cooler camaraderie they have at work. Normally, many IT departments shy away from (or forbid) messaging services like Skype or Slack, but used correctly those tools can be an excellent way to keep your colleagues in touch with one another (and you) while everyone is stuck at home. Used correctly is key here, so employees need to understand that substantive discussions about a project or a case need to be in e-mail or some other tool where they can be tracked. Instant messages like Skype are for non-substantive discussions and, yes, venting about your ten year old taking your laptop for history class while you try to work on your aging smartphone.
- Control your files. Let’s face it, no matter what kind of system you have in place, when a whole family is busily home-schooling and working remotely, that puts a premium on bandwidth and hardware accessibility in the household. That means your employees are making do as best they can to get the work done, and in order to do so, they may be saving files on their home computers, on Google Drive, or using a personal Dropbox or Box account. Normally, that may not be ok, but unless you were completely prepared for people to work at home you need to accept and acknowledge that it’s happening, and take control. If your folks need Dropbox, get a business account with backup and auditing functions, so you know where your files are and that they are backed up. If Google is the tool of choice, get a G-Suite account and have everyone work on the company account rather than on tens or hundreds of different personal accounts over which you have no control. Remember, you’re in emergency mode here, so you’re going to have to sacrifice the ideal for “good enough,” at least until everyone comes back to work. Fortunately, most of these solutions are quick to implement, inexpensive, and just as easy to stop as they were to start (with one caveat, which we’ll get to below).
- Control your files, part 2. Some employees have paper files, which are a whole different issue, especially when four people in a family are all working around the same kitchen table. Your policy will discuss that (more on that in a different post), but there are simple steps to make things easier for your employees. Start by providing employees with a “care package” of a bankers box and a few hanging folders, since most of them didn’t think to bring those things home when this adventure began, and follow up with folders or whatever your employees need to keep things organized. Otherwise, you may find that your important project file contains crayon drawings of Garfield the Cat but not that critical memo you’re looking for.
- Consider collaboration tools. There are lots of cloud-based tools out there to allow employees to collaborate on tasks and projects, which are both a boon for group work from different locations and a headache for IT. Most companies take a lot of time and energy to evaluate those tools before implementation, given the potential for misuse or data loss. Again, however, these are not normal times, so if necessary be prepared to look into tools which allow better collaboration quickly, particularly if your employees are already using them. Better to have some measure of control over the tools your team is already using than to tell them to stop while knowing they won’t (or when they can’t get their work done without them).
- Get ready for the return. After one or two months of working at home, some of your employees may be thrilled to be back, but for others the cat will be out of the bag – they now know they can indeed work at home, and they may like some of the “temporary” tools you brought in during the crisis. Be prepared to listen and discuss those expectations, and to implement any tools or processes you’ve learned where it makes sense to do so. After all, there’s a whole generation of folks coming up for whom working anywhere and on any device is completely natural, so why not use this experience to get a head start on the competition.
Image by Shuvaev