Virus creating virtual reality at work

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

by David Micah Kaufman

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is taking a massive toll, impacting not only individuals and families as well as employers as they struggle with balancing the need for keeping their employees healthy while running their businesses. I have been writing about the advantages and challenges of teleworking in this column for 15 years. If those articles didn’t inspire you to explore having employees work remotely, maybe this crisis has compelled you to create a plan (or at least contingencies) that may result in a large portion of you workforce attempting to be productive while staying home.

American companies can look to Asia, where the contagion first took route, for some clues as to how to effectively manage a now mostly virtual workforce. Shibani Mahtani wrote from Hong Kong for The Washington Post in early March about the lessons learned in China, “The social experiment of teleworking en masse has unearthed pitfalls, comical moments and potential opportunities. With the virus hitting the United States and Europe, millions more will probably need to crowd into homes with children and spouses while finding a way to stay productive.”

We are in fact now seeing many employers who have moved past nixing non-urgent business travel and are asking employees to even nix coming into the office, instead staying home to work. As I write this article, most of the companies doing that are large technology companies on the coasts. But, I predict mandatory or suggested remote working will soon be a way of life for American businesses in every industry from coast to coast.

The Post quotes a CEO of a video streaming company, “All signs point to this being something we will just have to deal with in the long term, so we will just have to be prepared.”

What should you do if circumstances require you to move toward a virtual workplace? Here are a few important items to consider.

#1 Plan ahead  

Consider running work-from-home drills with your workforce. A drill really focuses the mind and requires employees to actually take affirmative steps to be prepared. In early March, NASA held an “agency-wide telework day.” It announced, “As the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation continues to evolve, NASA is taking various actions to maintain preparedness. NASA centers and headquarters regularly perform telework drills to test our capabilities, resources, and preparedness for large-scale teleworking.”

To minimize disruption, you can do drills with only a portion of the workforce out each day. Be forgiving if some of your workers have problems making teleworking work—that’s the purpose of a drill! Identify successes and challenges.

#2 Manage productivity, not punctuality

Some employers and their managers get fixated on employees treating working from home just like they are working in the office. Stop. That doesn’t work. The fact is working from home and working from the office are very different.

We now have software that can monitor employees remotely to see when they login and logout and what they are doing on the firm’s systems. Mahtani wrote in her Post article, “In Hong Kong, some businesses are enforcing morning video chats to deter workers from lounging around in their pajamas.”

Having followed this trend for a long time, if I was a manager, I would not get too worked up over my team adhering to a strict schedule (or hanging out in their pajamas). Working from home, for example, allows employees to skip commuting which may mean they work earlier or later than they would in the office. If they can accomplish their goals wearing their pajamas, taking a power walk in the middle of the day, or shooting hoops with their kids, I think that’s fine.

#3 Connectivity

People need to still feel like they are working for an organization. They’ll also likely need to access services from the company. Therefore, connectivity on many levels is very important.

A big part of connectivity is technology. Can employees easily access the firm’s intranet and other applications? Do you have effective and efficient videoconferencing services?

Beyond technology, are you doing things to keep employees up-to-speed on what’s happening? By having your whole team telecommuting, you are effectively eliminating the “watercooler.” So people are getting information from a wide array of sources, even if they aren’t getting it from you. Remember, this is a stressful time, your team needs to hear from you.

#4 Those left behind

Don’t forget to consider what happens to those folks who need to remain onsite or who do not need to work at all if most of the team is now out-of-the-office. You need to communicate the need for those employees to work from the physical workplace to them and the rest of the employees. Neither group should feel like they are second-class citizens in your company.

One of the most difficult parts of moving to a complete telework model is the fact if there is no physical location, some of your employees are temporarily unnecessary. How your company deals with these workers is obviously impacted by your policies and culture.

While many employers have been aggressively utilizing telecommuting for their workforce, the current world health crisis creates a unique situation for every employer as they may be required to create an almost entire virtual workforce for the first time. Employers can manage this new reality by being flexible and thoughtful in responding to this turbulent environment.

David Micah Kaufman is the founder of BIGGER PIES!—a boutique professional services consulting firm in San Francisco—and a regular contributor to HR Insight. You can reach him at or 415-272-8115

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