The desire to contain the spread and impact of the COVID-19 virus has led many organizations to require their employees to work from home. For some, working virtually isn’t a big change. Many workers are already accustomed to working remotely on an intermittent or regular basis. It’s been reported that 43% of Americans work from home occasionally and at least 5.2% (8 million people) work from home full-time.
However, there’s a big difference between occasionally working from your kitchen table and setting up shop in your home for an extended period of time (or permanently).
Before you pull the trigger on sending your team members home to work virtually, I suggest you formulate a thoughtful strategy. Having led and been a part of virtual teams for many years, I can testify that working from home is not a panacea. It has its advantages compared to life in a cubicle, but it has its own unique challenges as well.
Incorporate these four areas in your strategy to have team members work virtually:
Clarity—Your team needs clear direction about the expectations and responsibilities of working remotely. Questions or topics to address include: Will team members be expected to maintain specific “office” hours? Does there need to be a different process for securing a backup if someone needs to be away from their desk or has a personal appointment? What technology platforms will you use, and when, to replace face-to-face meetings? If webcams are required for meetings, will be people be allowed to opt-out because they’re having a “bad hair day” (when, likely, they just didn’t feel like changing out of their pajamas)? Are there norms established that govern how the team makes decisions, communicates, and collaborates? Don’t assume the implicit expectations of a few team members working from home occasionally are explicitly known by everyone and that they apply to having the entire team function virtually.
Communication—Effective communication is the key to working successfully in a virtual team and of primary importance is establishing trust among team members. Trust is built through interpersonal interactions, and unfortunately, working virtually reduces the amount of interpersonal connection we experience compared to working in the office. We lose the random encounters in the hallway, break room, or at the water cooler that are so important in fostering personal connection. We also lose the visual cues provided by body language that place a person’s communications in context. The reliance upon email and IM in the virtual world easily leads to misinterpreting a person’s intent, usually in a negative fashion, so be proactive about using the phone and webcams to make communications more personal. Stay disciplined about holding one-on-one and team meetings to bring people together to combat loneliness and foster a sense of team identity.
Community—There are many benefits to working remotely. Included are increased productivity, a greater sense of autonomy and control over one’s work, and better work-life balance. But it comes at a cost—isolation and loneliness. Any veteran remote worker will tell you that loneliness is a frequent visitor to their home office and intentional effort is required to prevent that visitor from settling in permanently. Remote workers need to be proactive about reaching out to other team members to connect socially, even to just chit-chat for a few minutes. It’s also important for team leaders to create opportunities for team members to bond. Strategies can include having a virtual team lunch via webcam, have team members share pictures of their pets, or give virtual tours of their home offices. Shifting employees to work virtually, either temporarily in response to the coronavirus, or permanently as part of a larger strategy, requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team. Whether it’s specific training on how to lead or work in a virtual team, or general leadership and other skill-building training, remote employees should not be treated differently from office-based team members. The out of sight, out of mind pitfall often befalls virtual workers, thereby limiting their personal development and advancement opportunities. Virtual workers must advocate for themselves and need their leaders to champion their efforts in being included in the broader organizational community.
Shifting employees to working virtually requires leaders to increase the amount of training they provide the team.
Care—Virtual workers need to take the lead in self-care if they are going to be successful over the long haul. In addition to the challenges of isolation and loneliness, virtual workers often end up working longer hours because work is ever present. It’s hard to resist the temptation of sending just one more email, writing a few more lines of code, putting the finishing touches on that critical presentation, or doing just a bit more data analysis when the glow of the laptop screen is beckoning. To combat this challenge, have a dedicated work space, preferably with a door, where you can leave work behind at the end of the day. Establish personal norms for yourself regarding work hours and breaks, just like you would have in a physical office. Establish boundaries with housemates about noise and activity levels in the house, and how household responsibilities are handled during the workday. Build routines into your schedule that allow you to connect with others and recharge your batteries. It may be going to the coffee shop in the morning, walking the dog around the block, eating lunch outside, or taking an afternoon walk at a local park. Treat working from home much the same way you’d treat working in the office. Getting dressed in office attire puts you in the mindset of being at work, and believe me, it works in your favor when you need to join an impromptu webcam meeting!
For many occupations today, work has become something you do, not somewhere you go. Requiring people to work from home in response to the coronavirus gives many organizations a chance to see that people can be just as productive, if not more so, working virtually as compared to working in the office. This is a fantastic opportunity for organizations to build trust with their employees by giving them the opportunity to work remotely, and it’s also an opportunity for employees to prove themselves trustworthy in response.