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Dealing with Coronavirus: How to Survive Working Remotely as an Organization

The coronavirus outbreak is a human tragedy unfolding in front of us, it has already affected hundreds of thousands of people. Generally speaking, there’s a pessimistic narrative about the virus that has penetrated every conversation, no matter where you are in the world. Though there have been breakthroughs as scientists research the virus, there is still a lot of uncertainty — uncertainty that has manifested in the market and workplace.

Governments are issuing travel restrictions and quarantines (most recently, a complete travel ban between the US and Europe), large organizations are encouraging remote working and event organizers have cancelled conferences, such as the annual TED conference in Vancouver. As the virus continues to spread, one UK estimate suggests that 1 in 5 staff may be off work at the same time — with colleagues struggling to cover workloads.

The side effects of the virus and the fear surrounding it is diverse. Some businesses will struggle, especially those already in a weak financial position (such as UK airline Flybe which recently went into administration). Other companies might feel the strain with the opposite scenario and experience a considerable increase in demand, compounded with staff shortages.

There are even unintended environmental side effects with China seeing a massive drop in air pollution as people travel less. 

Currently, the leading business solution to the virus is to allow employees to work from home where possible. Some major institutions are already testing their contingency plans by identifying one day where the whole company works from home. This scenario, with its share of challenges, will be seen more and more of over the coming weeks.

What can the science of wellbeing teach us about navigating a global crisis?

The 2008 financial crash can teach us a lot about resiliency and wellbeing. During the downturn, personal wellbeing levels in Iceland didn’t plummet — despite being one of the worst-hit countries in the world. Researchers who compared 2007 wellbeing scores with 2009 found no overall change. People were generally happy despite the unemployment rising from 1% to 8%, recession and devalued currency.

What was the cause of their optimism? For one, the country is a relatively small community of 360,000 people and that sense of community meant they felt they were all “in it together”. On a personal level, they recognized that it wasn’t their fault and if they supported each other they would get through it. Additionally, Iceland is well known for a supportive social security system.

In short, Iceland’s resilience came about because of three things:

  • Maintaining strong relationships
  • Ensuring a sense of togetherness
  • Supporting those who are most directly affected

Last month we talked about developing resiliency to survive corporate setbacks. Iceland provides an interesting lesson to our current crisis but with the use of technology to maintain people connections — focusing on people will help you survive and maintain levels of wellbeing.

The problems of working remotely

Navigating the current coronavirus crisis means being short-staffed and coping with logistic challenges, but it’s vital not to overlook the human challenges as well. With people not being in the same building it is essential to find new ways of connecting with colleagues. Communicating by email or messaging services can maintain business efficiency, but also lacks a personal touch.

Humans rely on face-to-face interactions for relationship building. We learn from non-verbal cues in facial expressions, tone of voice and body posturing. Non-verbal cues enable us to read a situation and understand intentions, helping us build trust and psychological safety — critical factors in maintaining positive team dynamics. These are vital clues that are missing from written text and can lead to false conclusions and misunderstandings.

However, as increasing amounts of people are now being asked to work from home, downward spirals can grip quickly. How do you ensure your people do not feel isolated and maintain a level of trust? In addition to having video conferencing and online communication tools in place, companies need to monitor new working strategies and proactively manage morale, and keep people engaged. Our data shows, even before the virus, if team morale falls by 0.5pt staff turnover increase by 17% and productivity falls by at least 7%.

How to survive working remotely as an organization

Remember how Iceland survived? Here’s what we recommend you can do as your organization establishes and tests its remote working plans.

Measure and monitor team culture
With whole, or significant parts of, organizations going remote suddenly, it will be essential for senior and people leaders to have new systems that help them keep their finger on the pulse of what is going on. A consistent method of checking in with every team leader is essential in tracking the employee experience across the whole organization while remote. Our weekly pulse survey is explicitly designed for this and can help organizations better manage massive disruption to working patterns. Disruptions don’t have to be negative; they can also be opportunities to innovate. 

Invest in good video conferencing
Good video conferencing software is an absolute must — and many businesses are already adopting the trend. Since the coronavirus threat, Zoom’s share price has increased by 37%. “Seeing” colleague’s faces helps everyone feel connected. Though there are some issues with eye-contact in video services (if you look at the people in the screen, you’re looking away from the camera), remembering to look at the camera will help people feel connected. Sure, it’s awkward, but laughing and embracing the awkwardness will only make things better. It’s about the spirit of being in it together.

Be empathetic
People will have different challenges about working from home. It will be a new experience for many, and they may not have a quiet place to work from — the commute from the kitchen to the workstation is fraught with distractions! They have a learning curve, and you’ll have a learning curve in meeting everyone’s new “normal.” Encourage people to create new rituals with how they work. Most people can only concentrate for 50 minutes a time. Encouraging people to get up, stretch and take a walk outside will lead to better results.

Keep the chat going
In an office environment, there’s always someone to go for a coffee with. These side conversations are good for morale and also important for getting to know colleagues. Many companies use Slack, Teams, or WhatsApp for instant messaging and work communication, but they can serve a useful social function as well. Encourage this social chat — working remotely can be very isolating and can lead to miserable employees.

Explicitly check in with people
Check in on your team – not only what they are doing, but also how they are feeling. Working away from the office will be disorientating for some people, so it’s essential to keep a close eye on your team and their morale. Some may feel isolated being away from the team. Some may thrive.

Beware of being too intrusive
On the other side of checking in, line managers may start to check up too much because of not being able to “see” their team is working. Having clear daily or weekly goals and checking in on progress is good, but pinging people every hour to see if they are there will make them feel infantilized and decrease trust. There is a balance to be struck and talking about the challenges of finding this new balance with your team is an excellent way to start finding it.

Learn from how other companies already do it
The Auctus Group, a Friday Pulse client, is an entirely remote business. Their CEO is on record as saying that having a systematic, regular check in about people’s experience of work and their happiness is critical to their business growth. Their weekly responses on Friday Pulse generate data that feeds team conversations and actions. Because of this, leaders are more aware of the work-life balance of their team.

Surviving the turmoil of the coronavirus will require careful planning and agility. It will require empathy in understanding people’s working situations and time to check in with team members, so they don’t feel isolated. Though it’s a crisis moment, it’s also a time for innovation and experiencing new processes that you may not have considered before.