Published: 05 March 2020
Analyst(s): Asia HR Research Team
Many coronavirus contingency plans require remote work, whether organizations are ready or not. HR leaders must seize the opportunity to bolster their policies — and prepare for future workplace and employee needs.
Thanks to the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus, remote work is suddenly a new choice for many employees — and an overnight requirement for some. Few organizations feel prepared for large-scale remote work, but HR leaders can take steps to make the experience productive for both employees and the organization.
A recent Gartner webinar snap poll indicated 91% of attending HR leaders (all in Asia/Pacific) have implemented ‘work from home’ arrangements since the outbreak. However, the biggest challenge stems from the lack of technology infrastructure and lack of comfort with new ways of working.
Regular HR contingency plans should already specify key functions, roles, skills and activities required to keep the organization operating — and which can be done remotely. In a sudden crisis, though, those boundaries may stretch and require HR leaders to offer different types of support and nontraditional work options.
In many affected countries, governments have mandated or advised work from home for all employees — an unanticipated situation for most organizations that requires them to quickly review and modify existing policies.
HR leaders can analyze responsibilities, tasks and roles to determine which work lends itself to a remote model, and accordingly, what kind of support the organization will need to offer, when remote work is:
Not possible. For example, assembly line employees can’t work off-site. If even a skeleton crew needs to be kept on-site, HR responsibilities include safety measures (e.g., providing masks), job sharing (e.g., splitting shifts) and psychological support to reduce anxiety.
Possible at a cost. Some, such as sales teams, can function remotely but will benefit from guidance and support for managers and employees to navigate the logistical and cultural challenges.
Highly possible. Some employees, such as knowledge workers, may already work remotely at least some of the time. HR leaders can continue to build team trust, support employees and maintain a social connection to make the situation productive.
The first imperative in any crisis is to keep employees informed, but how and what is communicated, are critically important. This is especially the case when employees are working remotely and may otherwise receive less information from organizational channels than if they were in an office with their manager and peers.
It is advisable for HR leaders to openly and frequently share what the real impact of the crisis is on the business, and normalize what to expect. If not, employees will simply turn to the distributed network of information — websites, social media, etc. — to fill the void. HR leaders must ensure managers are informed so they can cascade information as needed.
Candor and two-way communication help to establish the trust required to make remote-work policies a success.
Whether the organization’s remote-work initiatives are routine or urgent, trust is the foundation of their success.
Managers often worry about the lack of visibility into the workflows and routines of their direct reports when they work remotely. In a recent Gartner snap poll, 76% of HR leaders reported the top employee complaint during the coronavirus outbreak as “concerns from managers about the productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”
However, worries regarding employee productivity may be exaggerated. Employees who work from home often manage their time so as to leverage the time of day when they feel most productive, and they don’t suffer unnecessary interruptions to the degree they do in the office.
Still, it is pivotal to guide managers to focus on outcomes in performance and productivity reviews. HR leaders can ensure that accurate expectations with employees are set and supportive interactions among employees is enabled.
Technology plays a key role in enabling communication and remote work. However, according to a recent Gartner snap poll, 54% of HR leaders indicated that poor technology and/or infrastructure for remote working is the biggest barrier to effective remote working in their organization.
Cloud-based productivity tools and other employee-facing technologies are increasingly prevalent in today’s workplaces, but this sudden large-scale remote-working experiment will definitely surface additional lessons learned — and opportunities for improvement. To increase utilization and improve the effectiveness of remote-working tools and technologies, HR leaders can communicate best practices and ideal use cases.
Even if the technology or infrastructure is inadequate, guide employees on effectively leveraging email, instant messaging and internal social media platforms to drive better and more consistent usage.
The primary lesson learnt from the coronavirus situation is the necessity to accelerate the development of a technology infrastructure that can support alternative types of working. HR leaders can leverage this opportunity to measure the impact on employee performance and productivity to build a business case for technology investment and more progressive policies for effective remote/flexible working.
This vast remote-work experiment is also a great opportunity to prepare for the future — when automation has expanded the role of knowledge workers and the preferences of younger generations demand that organizations provide remote-work options.
It is predicted that by 2030, the demand for remote work will increase by 30% due to Generation Z fully entering the workforce.
Remote work is already attractive to employees who need greater flexibility. It eliminates commuting time for those with family obligations; these employees are nearly twice as likely to work remotely at least sometimes as those without such responsibilities. And the workforce segment supporting aging family members continues to grow, adding to demands for flexible work arrangements.
But notably, while remote work is being increasingly demanded by employees and enabled by technology, most organizations (93%) defer to managers to decide who can and cannot work remotely. Due in part to the lack of trust, only 56% of managers actually let their employees work remotely — even when policy allows it.
The mandatory use of remote work for business continuity should signal to all organizations that it’s time to revisit their remote working policies and redesign them for wider application as business as usual.
Understand the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak for your peers and learn how to improve the success of remote and flexible working arrangement for employees.
Understand how HR leaders should prepare for the predicted rise in preference and demand for remote work by Gen Z.
2018 Comprehensive Benefits Benchmarking Survey
2019 ReimagineHR Employee Survey
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