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Making teleworking work in a time of crisis

Considerations in the crux of COVID-19


March 18, 2020

Let’s take a moment to look back: Oct. 17, 1989, a 6.9-magnitude earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay Area, killing 67 people and causing more than $5 billion in damages. Major infrastructure systems, including the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, were shut down for months while repairs were made. As a result, many workers were forced to work from home or satellite offices, which resulted in the start of formal telecommuting arrangements. Once the infrastructure was rebuilt, many employees refused to endure long commuting time and distance again, and they wanted to retain the current arrangement.

With the spread of COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, many employers who have not previously implemented telecommuting/work from home (WFH) arrangements, are being forced to offer WFH arrangements. Moving rapidly to remote access presents several issues for organizations and management.  
So, what makes it work and what are some of the pitfalls of which to be aware? Here are some tips to effectively manage WFH arrangements:
  1. Determine which positions lend themselves to WFH.
    1. Positions. Not all positions lend themselves to WFH arrangements. Some require face-to-face interaction or production with hands-on work, such as manufacturing. Determine which positions can be done remotely with proper access and technology tools. Is close interaction with other employees or customers/clients needed? Are there alternative options, such as conference calls with screensharing that allows for WFH? Can phones be programmed to forward calls? 
    2. Employees. Just as WFH arrangements may not be appropriate for all positions, not all employees can handle WFH arrangements. Employees must be technologically savvy, able to work independently with little to no supervision, be focused and dedicated to the task and have the dedicated workspace at home. 
    3. Develop a checklist. Define qualities and criteria for both the employee and supervisors to assist them in adapting to WFH environments. A checklist is provided on the MNCPA website.
  1. Determine what infrastructure is needed.
    1. Laptop or desktop computer systems. To what extent do you have appropriate computers to provide to employees? Ideally, the computers should be provided by the employer dedicated solely for use by employees for work-related activities. The equipment must be properly configured with security safeguards, speed and horsepower to get the job done effectively.
    2. Internet connections. To what extent does the employee have network access, proper software/hardware virus protection, bandwidth, etc.? Does the employer have to provide or upgrade internet access? Who will pay for any upgrades? Will the equipment be tracked and returned?
    3. Access and backup to LAN. Establish VPN (virtual private networks) to establish secure connections and data flow to the network for secure storage and backups.
    4. All systems go. Test the systems and access issues to ensure sufficient connections, speed and offsite storage and backups.
  1. Build ground rules
    1. Build a policy and contract. Establish a formal policy and contracts, including trial test periods. Establish work hours in which people are available, including potential issues with children at home if schools/daycare centers are closed.
    2. Designated work area. The employee should have a dedicated work area and the employer should ideally provide an ergonomic review for office appropriate chairs, desk, height and distance issues. Do not work in a coffee shop, restaurant or other public space. This is not appropriate given that the intent is to avoid contact with others during a pandemic.
    3. Keep people engaged with regular communications. Establish regular virtual meeting times and communications to keep employee informed and engaged. Hold regular check-ins, hold weekly meetings with the management team and each manager should have weekly meetings with employees.
    4. Virtual meetings. Establish proper protocol for virtual meetings using software programs, such as Zoom, WebX, Facetime, Skype, Jamm or similar products.
    5. Instant messaging or email. Define when instant messaging or emails are preferred and when IM is allowed, and what platform should be used. Note that constant messaging will interrupt train of thought, concentration and decrease productivity.
  1. Manage expectations
    1. Clear reporting. Define when reports and updates are required. Has the “chain of command” shifted? How frequently should employees report in and provide feedback?
    2. Accountability. Over-communicate with employees. Keep them informed and have clear expectations about performance, work-product deliverables and deadlines. Define work hours and when people should be available for work-related calls. Also consider when are employees available, when are they making calls, when and how do they report results?
    3. Avoid distractions. Minimize distractions in the home environment just as you would in the office. TV, games, children, etc. are easy distractions that may need to be addressed to better productivity. Establish formal work hours with time for necessary interruptions from family members at home.
    4. Evaluation. Determine how you will evaluate if the WFH arrangement is working or not working and the evaluation criteria at the start. Establish trial end dates. Create a plan for how you expect people to behave. How will you know if the arrangement is working or not working?
    5. What’s ideal? Plan for what the ideal state of remote work looks like at your organization. Address any gaps that may exist, whether that be through policy or process and then communicate that in an open forum to your employees and ask for feedback. What would make the arrangement more effective?
  1. Home and computer safety
    1. Ergonomic. As stated before, provide an ergonomic assessment of the workspace at home for employees.
    2. Cybersecurity/network. Work with IT staff to ensure protections against hacking and virus malware.
    3. Safeguard sensitive information. Establish protocol regarding document shredding documents and ensure data is stored on the organization server with regular transmissions and backup

Will this become the new normal?

Time will tell, but the current COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have a long ranging impact on workplaces. And, whether you’re able to adopt these ideas for the current challenge we’re facing, it would be good to put into practice for anything the future may bring.
Larry Morgan runs the MNCPA HR Hotline and is president of Orion HR Group, LLC. He is a regular contributor to Footnote. You may reach him at