10 Ways Organizations Can Stay Flexible and Remote When The Office Reopens

By Kelly Valade & Christa Cummins, Grail Insights

How will workplaces resume–or continue–operating once it’s safe to do so? Will they reopen in the same way? In places where people share space for hours at a time, the greater risk of infection is real. Return-to-work plans will be subject to regional and national mandates and guidelines. These times of uncertainty put stress on employees, companies, and whole economies.

In the face of this uncertainty, many companies are more open to remote work culture as a viable option for the foreseeable future. Employers have had to adapt quickly, and many who have successfully adapted are discovering silver linings in a remote work model.

Some employees realized the benefits of remote working long before the quarantine. According to a 2019 State of Remote Work Survey conducted by Buffer, most of those surveyed were at least partially accepting of remote work and would recommend it to others. In fact, in a recent International Workforce Group survey, 80% of potential employees turned down a career opportunity that did not offer a flexible/ remote work option. And it’s not just employees that benefit from a flexible workstyle . . . businesses do as well. Per the 2019 IWG Global Workspace Survey, 85% of businesses confirm that productivity increased as a result of giving employees greater flexibility/ options for working from home.

Grail is an insights company that built a remote flexible workforce from the ground up many years before this pandemic–we know remote. Here are ten insights into how to make the Great Return work for your company.

1. Lead from the front

Management of a remote work setup requires setting an example by providing clear direction, communicating it effectively, and demonstrating ideal remote working. Leaders who attend meetings from their own homes and share their own remote work experiences offer reassurance to employees that it’s an acceptable choice that can be done successfully. Because everyone responds differently to the cultural shift and challenges of a remote work environment, offering a strong vision and a realistic outlook has a powerful effect on motivation across the organization. For example, our CEO provides frequent and transparent updates from his home workspace on the evolving COVID-19 situation across global locations. This keeps the entire organization tethered together.

2. Hold regular meetings

Moving to remote working disrupts typical office-based flows and rhythms, but managers can help replicate that rhythm with regular, structured meetings that allow room for flexibility. It is important to strike a balance between frequency and employee needs to avoid micromanaging. For example, as Alibaba embraced remote working, it also made sure its meetings were more tightly run. One person is assigned to track time and manage the outcomes of each meeting. Team members can rate meeting effectiveness using a five-star system that offers immediate feedback and positive suggestions forward.

3. Help employees help themselves

Remote working can create confusion about internal points of contact for specific issues and ways of approaching them. Effective remote organizations create a structure for employees to find who and what they need while working remotely and a culture that empowers employees to seek the information they need. With half of its workforce remote, Glitch created an employee handbook on this subject. In addition to key internal contacts, the handbook provides tips on getting to know coworkers, expectations around work hours, workspace recommendations and standards for using communication channels.

4. Find room for flexible operations

Some organizations have a ‘Command and Control’ culture, where employees are expected to focus completely on work during a fixed time schedule. These schedules are more difficult to maintain in a remote work environment due to multiple distractions at home. Instituting flexible work from home policies helps to alleviate the significant cultural shift (and resulting stress) of transitioning from a centralized to a remote-based workplace.

5. Maintain social interaction

Teams do their best work when they know and interact with each other as people, not just employees. It is critical to provide your employees with ways to interact socially and informally about non-work topics while working remotely. This is especially true for workers who have abruptly transitioned out of the office, as isolation can lead to loss of productivity and job satisfaction. At Grail, our human resources team sponsors online activities and opportunities for teams to share more about their lives, not just their project responsibilities.

6. Focus on employee well-being

Leading employers are focusing on their workforce by providing additional healthcare benefits, fostering healthy lifestyles, and providing skills and training for career growth. Good managers are acknowledging the stress of the pandemic and listening to their team. Ally Financial reacted to the pandemic by showing care and generosity to their employees. After moving 8,700 employees remote in just a few days, the company introduced a host of healthcare and welfare benefits. Key initiatives included free telemedicine consultations, a $1,200 tax-free financial assistance payment to help cover unexpected costs related to working from home, 100% coverage for diagnostic testing and any associated visits related to COVID-19, and other measures to ensure the physical and emotional health of their people.

7. Honor work/home boundaries

According to the 2019 Buffer study, employees who work remotely struggle to unplug from their jobs and are at risk of burnout. Managers should encourage their teams to slow down and care for themselves by taking regular breaks and encouraging them to ‘leave’ the office after finishing their standard work hours. Many productivity tools also allow employees to set their “away” status and silence notifications to successfully unplug from work.

8. Establish remote security practices

Security concerns add a layer of complexity to the technological side of remote working. Employees need to understand safe practices and know what tools they are authorized to use. Companies need to concentrate on securing their cloud-based platforms and employee endpoints (e.g., computers and mobile devices), eliminating shared accounts, implementing secure password standards, and providing password management tools (such as LastPass or 1Password) to their employees. Alibaba leads in this by using its own software, Alilang, to manage network and device security for remote workers.

9. Invest in technology that enables remote work

Effective remote work depends on more than just a fast, stable, and secure internet connection. Process management tools (such as Trello, Monday.com) enable teams to stay on task and keep managers up-to-date. Document collaboration tools (e.g., Google Docs, Dropbox, Box) allow employees to co-create without the burden of managing version control. Many multinational firms accelerated roll-out of communication solutions like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. Having a flexible IT environment helps the transition to a remote working environment while ensuring future business continuity.

10. Embrace remote collaboration

There are a host of SaaS (Software as a Service) tools that, along with clear protocols for use, enable work to continue while employees are geographically dispersed. When employees are willing to learn how to use these tools, they can support productivity and make employees feel more connected to one another. In the last few months, monthly active users of Ding Talk in China jumped by 66 percent to more than 125 million.

The recent acceleration of many businesses to remote working was prompted by forces out of businesses’ control–which can be scary. There are many pitfalls of having to learn new business operations models practically overnight. But these can be avoided by embracing the best practices of companies that have been doing this for years.

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