COVID-19 affected businesses in many ways. Some sectors (most notably healthcare) had to respond to a sudden and significant increase in demand for their services, which created a higher need for staff. Others, like travel and hospitality, were forced to downsize their workforces when the consumer and leisure activities they rely on ground to a halt in many countries.
One of the most common consequences of the pandemic for organizations was an increase in remote working, as recommended by governments and health authorities to combat the spread of the virus.
Research by PwC has indicated this is likely to be an 'enduring shift' in how businesses function. Nearly eight out of ten respondents (78%) to the company's CEO Panel Survey said they expect remote collaboration to continue even after conditions return to normal after the pandemic. Low-density workplaces (61%) and the gig economy (54%) were also identified as lasting trends.
If managing a remote workforce is a new challenge for your business, it's important to be aware of some of the most common mistakes and pitfalls you should be careful to avoid.
1. Failing to support work/life balance
Employees who are used to a traditional workplace could face a number of challenges when making the transition to remote working, one of which is maintaining a good work/life balance. While operating remotely can help employees improve this aspect of their jobs - by giving them back the time they previously spent commuting, for example - it can also blur the boundaries between their work and home lives.
Encourage your staff to make a distinction between their jobs and their personal time by setting up a dedicated space in their home for work. When they need to take a break or stop for the day, they can move into another area to switch off and get out of the work mindset.
It's also important to advise employees to turn off work-related emails and other notifications outside working hours. The instant access to communication tools provided by smartphones can make people feel like they're 'always on' and constantly having to think about their jobs, which can lead to burnout.
Introducing targeted measures to help staff maintain a good work/life balance could prove vital to people's mental wellbeing, particularly during times of high stress and anxiety. This needs to be a priority for employers in the post-COVID era.
According to experts at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the pandemic is likely to have long-term consequences for mental health.
2. Not creating a daily routine
Employees who are used to a traditional workplace could face a number of challenges when making the transition to remote working, such as maintaining a consistent routine when they're in their home environment. Bearing this in mind, managers might want to take the lead on devising a clear structure for the working day.
It's a good idea to introduce recurring meetings at regular intervals throughout the week, so all members of the workforce have plenty of opportunities to catch up with each other, provide progress updates and share key information.
You might also want to come up with a timetable for regular check-ins with certain members of staff, particularly those who are most productive when they're collaborating and bouncing ideas off other people.
There are many project management tools you can use to create work plans and timetables that can be easily shared across your entire workforce. Platforms like Asana, Trello, Basecamp and Liquid Planner can prove particularly useful for tasks like creating to-do lists, prioritizing your most important activities and allocating jobs to individuals.
As well as giving people the support and structure they need to get on with their work, daily timetables can be a good way to allow time for breaks, meals and exercise. The most successful remote workers are able to set clear boundaries between their work and home lives, and responsible employers should be ready to help their employees do this.
3. Communication breakdowns
When people are spending a lot of time together in the workplace, frequent contact and communication between colleagues usually happens automatically. Co-workers will naturally talk to each other and discuss what's on their minds, which helps with relieving stress and sharing ideas that will help people do their jobs more effectively.
In a remote workforce, however, regular contact and conversation becomes more difficult - something that can have various negative consequences. As well as making staff feel isolated and depriving them of the basic benefits of human contact, barriers to communication are likely to affect the performance of the business as a whole.
If you're working on a big customer order with a tight deadline, for example, you'll need everyone involved in the project to be in frequent contact with each other. This will reduce the risk of mistakes being made or customer priorities being overlooked as a result of miscommunication.
Again, technology has a vital role to play here, with communication and collaboration tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google's G Suite making it easier (and cheaper) than ever for colleagues to keep in touch, no matter where they're based. Applications like these are invaluable for formal communication, but they can also be used for informal conversations and team events like virtual coffee breaks. These sorts of activities are crucial to boost morale and maintain relationships between colleagues who are working remotely.
4. Assuming low-contact employees don't need support
Different people will respond to remote working in different ways. Some will thrive on social interaction and collaboration, and will therefore need to be in regular contact with their co-workers and managers to stay productive.
However, people who are used to working alone or are naturally quiet could become even more introverted when working remotely, perhaps because they don't feel confident enough to speak up if they have a question or a problem.
Managers need to be careful not to assume that employees are perfectly happy to be getting on with their jobs just because they're not expressing any concerns. In fact, it might be the quietest and most reserved workers who need the most attention from their managers, since they're the least likely to come forward of their own accord.
Even the smallest actions and gestures - like a manager calling to check in with someone they haven't spoken to for a couple of days - can be enough to make that employee feel supported. It also reduces the risk of seemingly minor issues going unaddressed and potentially turning into serious problems.
Furthermore, being proactive in this way shows your commitment to looking after your workforce, which is good for your employer brand.
5. Failing to provide tech support
One of the top priorities for modern businesses that are going through a significant shift to remote working - either through choice or necessity - should be to ensure that employees have access to the various tools and technologies they need to do their jobs effectively.
Going a step further, you also need to think about what processes and systems should be put in place to provide ongoing tech support and solutions.
That means asking questions like:
- How will you respond to technical problems that stop people from doing their jobs - a malfunctioning laptop, for example?
- Is there technical support available for workers who have issues with the software or systems they need to work remotely?
- Are you able to provide ongoing training to help employees make the best use of technology for remote working?
Our research has indicated that most businesses have done a good job of dealing with the technological implications of increased remote working. The Randstad Workmonitor 2020 report found that 79% of employees felt they had the equipment and technology they needed to adapt to accelerating digitalization. This compares favorably with research from Q1 2018, which showed that 35% of workers didn't feel their employer provided the technical equipment required to work effectively from home.
Another key finding from the 2020 study was that 40% of respondents worldwide struggled to learn new skills to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests many employers could increase the support they're giving their workforce by providing training that reflects the latest trends and developments in technology.
6. Overlooking security
It's essential that employees are able to do their jobs properly from home, but it's also important that operating with a remote workforce doesn't raise security risks for the company. If this is a concern for your business, there are measures you can put in place to increase protection and keep your sensitive information and assets safe.
Firstly, you might want to consider providing company-issued devices, such as laptops and phones, to people whose work involves data that must be kept secure. By taking this approach, you can make sure that every piece of equipment your employees are using for work has strong security settings and is protected with reliable antivirus software and other safeguards.
Another option that can prove effective is to create a dedicated virtual private network for your organization, which increases security by providing a private "tunnel" where data can be sent and received securely, using encryption and authentication tools.
Employees should also be informed of best practices where security is concerned, such as:
- Finding a quiet place for calls that might include sensitive information, or using headphones for privacy
- Not printing out data that needs to be kept secure
- Locking laptop screens when they're not in use and adding password protection to all hardware
As noted earlier in this blog, remote working can increase the risk of problems arising as a result of managers not having regular contact with staff. While it's vital to make sure you're keeping in touch with people and having regular check-ins, it's also important that you don't go to the other extreme and become a micromanager.
You need to maintain regular communication with your staff, but you also need to show that you trust them to do their jobs and stay productive without a manager (virtually) peering over their shoulder.
Research has suggested that being away from the workplace can actually help people be better at their jobs, with 77% of remote workers saying they're more productive when working from home and 76% choosing to avoid the office when they need to focus on a project.
Ultimately, managers should be looking for the right balance between supervising their remote workforce, providing the support their teams need and giving people a level of freedom and control over their jobs.
8. Not setting expectations
People who are new to remote working should have a clear idea of how they will go about fulfilling their responsibilities from home (or wherever they're based) and the level of productivity they should be aiming for.
For some roles - those that only require a computer, an internet connection and access to business data and systems, for example - there might be very little difference between how employees would usually work in an office and how they work at home.
However, jobs that are more reliant on collaboration and interaction between co-workers won't be so well-suited to remote working. In these cases, it's important to engage with employees and come up with a plan for how they can continue to apply their skills and be productive for the business, even when they're working in unfamiliar circumstances.
It's in situations like these that managerial skills come to the fore and you really see the benefits of having a clear plan to effectively manage your remote workforce.
Randstad has produced a miniguide looking at exactly this subject, which highlights practical steps and measures you can take to support your remote workers and help them achieve the best results.