How to prepare your business for long-term remote working

How to prepare your business for long-term remote working
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Many companies are experiencing the most dramatic shift in how we work in decades -- if not in recent human history. Not since the pandemic of 1919 did the world experience a colossal and sudden shift in how and where employees work and how they connect with each other.

There are hints of some good news. Someday, we will return to normal and there are some signs the pandemic is abating in some areas. However, there are also signs that the pandemic is gaining ground in places like France and Japan. One thing is certain -- employees will be working at home for the foreseeable future and it’s wise to develop long-term plans. These tips can help you develop a strategy now instead of hoping the problem subsides.

1. Develop a robust video communication strategy

Priority one, above all else, is to lock into a video conferencing tool that everyone uses. This is the first step because every company needs to figure out how to communicate in a way that replicates in-person contact. There are employee mental health reasons for this, business continuity reasons -- and financial reasons in terms of the company. Without a standard way to connect over video -- whether that’s one-on-one, in smaller groups, or as a whole company -- there will be immediate problems. Curiously though, many companies haven’t done this yet and rely on multiple video chat apps such as Skype, Zoom, and even Apple FaceTime.

The problem is that there often isn’t a strategy for how this works -- who has paid accounts in the organization, whether there are security standards in place, or if the video chat app runs on supported devices. It is often not documented and there is little communication, mostly because this massive shift to remote work took so many of us by surprise. Even if there are some standard apps and good communication, it’s not robust enough to deal with issues like an all-company meeting or a method to communicate urgent information.

2. Make an airtight employee work-from-home contract

Legal experts have told that a telecommuting contract is no longer optional. The problem is that many companies did not have one in place for all workers prior to the pandemic, or it did not fully address the problem. Most have experimented here and there with remote work arrangements but not at this scale. It’s important to develop a contract as part of your long-term planning, starting with a section on the health and safety of employees. This protects them and clarifies the company’s position, but it also protects the employer in terms of how much the company is responsible for employee welfare. (According to legal experts, a business still needs to ensure the employee has a safe and healthy working environment, even from home.)

The contract should expand into many other areas. It should answer questions such as: who is responsible for any business broadband service and at what cost? If an employee-issued business laptop is damaged, who should pay for the repairs and how quickly? How many hours should the employee work and how flexible is the arrangement on their time during the day? The more the contract can clarify what working from home means, the better. It’s also important not to rush this agreement -- for a long-term work-from-home scenario where everyone is remote, the contract should be robust enough to weather the storm over many months or even a year of remote work.

3. Reduce the apps and tools you use for streamlining remote work

One of the sudden realizations for many companies is that they relied on way too many business apps and services. There are companies that allowed multiple cloud storage services like Dropbox and Microsoft Onedrive for different teams in addition to the cloud storage they offer using their own data center or from Amazon. This was already a confusing situation before the pandemic. The business’s excuse was that it helped the workforce go mobile and stay connected.

Not anymore. The plethora of apps used by employees (either sanctioned by the company or not) has created even more confusion and chaos, especially for your help desk and IT management. Not only is it difficult to support so many apps, but the employees are also confused and less productive. In the course of one day, they might switch between Microsoft Teams and Slack, drop into a Skype call, and then use Zoom on their iPhone for another meeting. It creates a hectic work-from-home environment. The age-old concept of a “standard desktop” has suddenly become far more important even for smaller companies with an “anything goes” attitude. It’s far better to lock into a more predictable suite of apps and services.

4. Mental health

There’s one final point to make about the long-term impact of running a business with a remote workforce. It’s critical that you think about mental health. Working from home for a week or two is not too dramatic, but when employees work remotely for months, it can create tensions and stress that didn’t exist before. Even those who have worked from home for years or decades might be surprised at the mental health impacts of working at home when you are not allowed to meet with people at a coffee-shop or go shopping at the mall as a respite.

Any long-term strategy should address this issue. There may be ways to introduce some levity to the work-day, to add extra time to Zoom meetings to “shoot the breeze” or drink coffee together. You might consider sending extra care packages to employees or holding more Facebook Live sessions instead of only meeting over Skype or Zoom.

It should not be a minor add-on to your business strategy but front and center -- how to keep employees engaged and focused, how to give them adequate breaks and margins, how to develop personal relationships and care for them without constant work expectations. Employees that have fun together -- even remotely -- work better together.

John Brandon

John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.