COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented shift to work from home (WFH) for millions of people. In large part as a result of this experience, organizations are facing growing demand from employees to support more flexible or fully remote work well beyond the pandemic. It’s clear that nearly all organizations are dealing with short term challenges adapting to the change as well as tough decisions on how they will support a more remote workforce in the future.
I’ve written about how we’ve been helping organizations adapt to the change, from those that had remote options already to those that are new to it (see some of our findings here). Through this process, we’ve noticed organizations making a wide variety of changes to adapt. Below, I’ve compiled some of the most impactful actions we’ve seen them take to help their workforces during this unplanned shift. I think that some of these ideas are likely useful not only now but in the long term as well.
Many organizations on the more conservative end of digital transformation have struggled to adapt to the change. Their core software may include just email and calendar. In the best cases, these same organizations are rapidly making the switch to support remote collaboration, implementing tools like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Asana and are already seeing positive results. Keep in mind, however, that rollout isn’t the only hurdle. You also need a plan on how to train your teams and get them excited to use these tools.
In many of the best adapted organizations we’ve seen significant spikes in manager activity.
In many of the best adapted organizations we’ve seen significant spikes in manager activity. This seems largely due to increased outreach by managers across the board to keep their teams connected and coordinated. We’ve also seen a large increase in the number of managers running weekly one-on-one meetings with their reports. Engaged managers are clearly central to helping organizations effectively navigate the new work environment and the best organizations are focused on encouraging and supporting efforts at this level.
In the past, we discussed how even though people are collaborating more within their direct teams, cross-functional collaboration is significantly down. This trend appears likely to lead to more siloed and hierarchical organizations. To ensure this vital communication isn’t lost, the top-performing companies are proactively implementing measures to maintain these connections. This includes actions such as assigning mentors across departments and encouraging cross-functional check-ins.
Companies adapting well to the change are being proactive about creating and communicating best practices around the use of tools such as email, meetings and messaging.
Another thing we’ve noted is how this is a particularly distracting time for many people at work. The need for more coordination means more emails, more chats, more meetings. Individual tasks requiring focus suffer as a result. Companies adapting well to the change are being proactive about creating and communicating best practices around the use of tools such as email, meetings and messaging. This includes advice on avoiding too many recurring meetings, as well as scheduling meetings at extremes of the day (beginning, end of workday) to minimize schedule disruption.
Social events were some of the first things to go with the advent of social distancing, but frequent interaction and activity between coworkers is one of the key factors in maintaining a successful team. Our findings show that virtual social events, like virtual water cooler chats and happy hours on Friday, are a good way for coworkers to maintain strong relationships. We've seen things like organizations delivering beer and wine to employees on Fridays to support this. We’ve also seen an explosion of tools designed to facilitate this social interaction, such as Tandem for always-on voice chat and NextflixParty and Twitch for hosting joint video watching sessions.
Employees with children at home are uniquely affected by the pandemic. Without any child care available, it can be difficult for working parents to balance their work duties and families at the same time. We are seeing companies taking steps to try to shoulder some of the burden. Sometimes, this is done through online activities for children, like colleagues reading to younger kids via Zoom and or organizations paying for material and equipment to help keep kids entertained. More generally, we’re just seeing an atmosphere of flexibility and understanding to accommodate the situation.
Because having a quick chat with your boss/manager isn’t as easy, many companies are taking more proactive approaches to monitor employee engagement and wellbeing. We’ve seen this done primarily through surveys focused on basic WFH problems. This can include making sure someone has the appropriate tools and is getting the support they need to be productive. Specific questions on wellbeing are also commonplace in these surveys, like whether or not your employees feel lonely or disconnected to their peers. In addition, we’ve seen a number of organizations sharing training material on wellness and even hosting regular remote wellness and meditations sessions.
In the past, we’ve discussed how the blurring of the line between personal and work life has led to significant increases in workday length during the pandemic. The best companies are addressing this proactively by monitoring these trends and encouraging employees to find a balance. This can include clearly communicating expectations around work-life balance, discouraging after-hours email from leaders and reminding their teams about the risks of burnout.
HR teams also play a key role in helping keep tabs on people and their connections. Our data shows that in organizations adapting well to WFH there is typically a significant spike in the amount of outreach from HR into the broader org. Additionally, what’s interesting to see is that some organizations saw spikes in HR interaction followed by gradual decline. While those that seem best adapted have maintained a high level of engagement between HR and their workforces after several months into the WFH period.
Just as we’re seeing less inter-department communication, we are noticing less collaboration between levels (senior execs with those below them, etc.) in many organizations. In the best adapted organizations, senior leadership tends to be working hard to keep up regular contact across their organizations during this period. This includes activities like weekly recurring town hall meetings via Zoom or Q&A sessions. It also involves senior leaders proactively reaching out to check-in with individuals across the board.
Coordinating remote teams poses a variety of unique challenges. For one thing, managers have far less day-to-day visibility into how their teams are functioning. Many managers we’ve spoken to have noted some difficulty ensuring that their team members know exactly what to focus on and that everyone is aligned on the right priorities. The best teams have implemented great processes to help here, and have done so quickly. This can range from 15-minute remote standing meetings, to implementing better collaboration and task management tools that increase that visibility into tasks and their relative priority..
Ultimately, we’ve seen a large spread of techniques in terms of how organizations have reacted to the move to work from home. Some are trying to emulate their office environments as tightly as possible, while others are radically altering their operations. Right now, while we see the potential for offices to open up in some capacity, many organizations are likely to become more remote beyond the pandemic. This makes it essential for organizations to stay focused on what they can do to support remote teams and keep up a consistent effort throughout the period. It is also a time to learn what is and isn't working in order to position your organization for a clearly more remote future.