The Benefits and Challenges of a Remote Workforce in Times of Crisis
March 18, 2020
This blog post was written by Debbie Newsholme, MS, CCEP, CHC; Senior Director, Content Development, HealthStream. Newsholme has worked remotely for many years.
Many organizations have the luxury of time when deciding whether to let employees work remotely. That has not been the case with the Covid-19 virus outbreak. Although there were some early warnings that this would be an unprecedented occurrence, it took a few weeks for the federal, state, and local governments, school systems, businesses, and citizens to realize the seriousness of the situation. As a result, Americans are changing their way of life and applying “social distancing” in an effort to stop the spread. Organizations, too, are jumping in to help reduce person-to-person transmission by closing offices and asking employees to work from home. This article will discuss some of the benefits and challenges to making the most of a very difficult situation.
Given the speed at which decisions are made to ramp up a remote workforce, several logistical considerations must be made. First, does the workforce have the tools they need to perform their usual roles from a remote location—presumably their homes? This includes a desktop or laptop computer, monitors, connectivity to the internet, and access to the organization’s network via VPN or cloud-based applications. Second, is there appropriate IT security in place to ensure that there is minimal risk to the organization’s infrastructure? Additionally, are there methods in place for video and teleconferencing to use in lieu of face-to-face meetings? Are there individuals within the IT department who are available and have the appropriate tools to support a remote workforce? Does the organization have a travel policy in place? These are just a few of the practical considerations that an organization must address when deciding whether to support a remote workforce.
In the scheme of things, the above are relatively straightforward. They are the practical “to-dos” that allow for the successful deployment and maintenance of a remote working environment. The more complicated challenge is how to deal with the effects on the individuals themselves. Moving away from an office environment surrounded by co-workers is difficult for many temperament types. Many people enjoy the comradery of social interaction with others, taking a break with a cup of coffee or a team member or stopping by someone’s desk just to catch-up. These individuals may suffer feelings of isolation without the ability to interact with others daily. Therefore, it is essential to help the workforce make this transition.
Focus on Communication
Probably the most important requirement for success is communication! That means communication in all directions—between managers and team members, team members with managers, within teams. Creating an environment of high trust is based in a solid communication strategy. Scheduling team meetings that allow time for “water cooler” conversation helps individuals feel a sense of belonging much like the office environment. Making sure the meetings feel “safe” where team members are open to sharing ideas, opinions, and thoughts without fear of judgement or criticism goes a long way to supporting a productive, highly functional remote team.
Begin by Setting the Tone for Working Remotely
After establishing the team communication strategy and continuously supporting the safe environment, be sure there is a clear, shared understanding of the remote team concept. Take the team through an exercise to identify the following:
- Common purpose – ask “Are we aligned with the mission of the organization?”
- Common goals – ask “Are we working towards the same goals?”
- Common values – ask “Are we aligned with the organization’s values?”
These steps are important to ensure that the team is committed to the organization and the priorities for which they all will be held accountable. Discuss the importance of the individuals’ levels of commitment to their work, the team’s goals, and the organization. It is also a great time to discuss individual responsibilities and set short-term goals and gives an opportunity to make sure everyone is clear on timelines and deliverables.
During this initial strategy session, discuss the acceptable standards for work product and the importance of adherence to a regular schedule. Remind your team about the importance of balancing work, home, and family commitments. Be sure to offer opportunities for coaching and additional help for anyone who feels the need for extra support.
Clear Expectations Are Key
Finally, set expectations up front. Be clear in directions to the team and allow for questions and clarification – ask early and often! Honor the differences in team members and openly recognize everyone’s strengths and contributions. Remember, everything will not go as planned. Accept the mistakes and don’t dwell on what went wrong. Rather, ask what could be done differently next time? Celebrate success no matter how small. Bring everyone together with their coffee or tea and a sweet treat for a virtual party!
Whether this is a temporary situation or a move to something more permanent, these tips have been tested and refined over several years. Hopefully, they will be valuable as we continue in the “new” normal.
This blog post is linked to HealthStream’s ongoing effort to help healthcare organizations and other professionals respond appropriately to the Covid-19 pandemic. Visit our Coronavirus (Covid-19) Support page for links to free healthcare training, upcoming learning events, and other resources. As with any emerging infection, make sure that you become familiar with the resources available on the CDC website. The CDC updates information there as they learn it, so checking in daily and setting up an email notification for updates is strongly recommended.