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COVID-19: 5 short-term digital workplace best practices

If you’re like many companies, you’re looking at going fully virtual in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing and creating/updating work from home policies for the workplace is recommended by health bodies and government authorities everywhere, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions.

Keith MacKenzie
Keith MacKenzie

Passionate about human resources, employment, and business management, and an expert at sharing that expertise.

digital workplace

The swift move to go fully virtual may come naturally for a tech-savvy Silicon Valley startup – makes sense, since their business tends to be SaaS and therefore cloud-based – but what about the rest of us who have worked in an office all our lives? The transition isn’t nearly as easy.

Need help with your COVID-19 company policy? We’ve got you covered with this template.

We reached out to those who either went fully virtual well beforehand and are in a good place now or are doing it in a pinch. What we quickly learned is that going fully virtual, with WFH and remote work policies in place, was not just as a result of the coronavirus pandemic but for other reasons altogether.

For instance, Anh Trinh of the online review publication, Geek With Laptop, said it made financial sense to do so:

“I wanted to cut costs. I was tired of paying rent for my office as well as commuting daily to work.”

Simon Hansen, founder of a website focused on “lesser-known sports”, Best Sports Lounge, looked at it as a positive for business and overall health rather than a mitigation of cost:

“I opted to go fully virtual because I believed that it made me more productive, and the option gave me more time to spend time with my family and take care of my health.”

Great. Combine that with the sudden urgency due to the pandemic, and you have good reasons for going all-in on a quick virtual transformation of your workplace. But let’s be aware of the pitfalls, some of which you may have thought about already.

Some challenges are inevitable

One aspect of business success is being able to monitor productivity and engagement. That’s easy to do when you can look over and see your colleague or direct report doing what they do best. Reminders of “Hey, how’s that project coming along? Think we can deliver for Friday?” are loaded with nuance, so those benefit from in-person delivery.

Mark Lee, CEO of Splashtop, a remote-work and WFH SaaS provider headquartered in San Jose, California, is pragmatic about that missing element in a fully virtual environment:

“Employees walking over to a group, asking a question to whoever seems available at that time, water-cooler discussions – it’s so different than communication with a virtual employee.”

Anh, who also has distributed teams, notes:

“One of the biggest problems was the well-being of my staff as well as their productivity. I didn’t know if they were doing their jobs or not. I couldn’t see them personally so I really couldn’t tell.”

Simon agrees:

“It’s harder to communicate and motivate your workforce with such limited methods, making it more difficult for you to ensure your workforce’s productivity.”

Mark echoes the same sentiments, adding that it impacts teamwork as well:

“Productivity of teams being impacted is the biggest worry. It is hard to ‘see’ team activity at a glance. Some of it can be captured in dashboards but it’s hardly ever the whole picture. Potentially reduced collaboration and its impact is another worry. Despite multiple collaboration tools, it’s hard to replace the ease and efficacy of face-to-face conversations.”

Matthew Barton, Operations Director at Virtual Internships – with offices in Philadelphia, London, Shanghai and Brisbane, connecting interns with companies online – noted a more significant hurdle: the employee buy-in and adoption of tools.

“Some of the biggest challenges in being fully virtual for us would be making sure that all employees are fully attuned to virtual ways of working and understand the full capability of the tools that we use to collaborate.”

So, herein are the challenges. Productivity, communication, collaboration, monitoring, tracking, buy-in and adoption, the whole bit. To help you in your short-term digital transformation efforts, we share with you five digital workplace best practices as you go fully virtual in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

1. Equip your employees with tools and best practices

Let’s face it. Not everyone in your team is going to be fully versed in using tech. Some will, of course, but others may be accustomed to a certain way of doing things at work. Changing that on the fly can be a big ask for some employees, especially when it’s tech-oriented, as Matthew says:

“There are … residual feelings towards the underperformance of technologies and networks that people are concerned about.”

Also, when people are accustomed to meeting in person, they may not be wholly familiar with online meeting etiquette. Peter Arvai, CEO of the presentation software company Prezi, with offices in Budapest, San Francisco, and Riga, has plenty of experience on how to maximize productivity in virtual meetings. He recommends sending the presentation to attendees in advance, to give them time to digest beforehand. Another suggestion is to cut down on the number of meetings, most of which are status update-driven and brainstorm-focused and may not be as required as meetings designed to sync teams.

Also, Peter has recommendations on how to best connect with busy colleagues, such as your boss:

“If your boss’s schedule is booked or they are traveling with a fluid schedule, send them a video of your thoughts [using a webcam, voice mail, etc.] and let them decide if you need to talk. Usually, they’ll be able to answer your question based on the one-way video.”

Mark at Splashtop suggests some quick solutions:

“To ensure remote employees don’t miss out, we set up a Teams channel [e.g. in Slack or another chat software] for such ad-hoc conversations so everyone’s included. We encourage calling and chatting with remote employees for quick discussions, just like you would discuss with someone sitting next to you in the office.”

Help them understand why

It will also be helpful to address your employees on the “why” of it. It’s not because you want to have a check-in, check-out policy – it’s more because teams operate better when we’re all in sync with one another and we all know what everyone else is doing. That’s easy in the physical office – but with the aforementioned tools, you can succeed virtually as well. Helping your employees understand that and know how to use the technology you equip them with will go a long way.

Mark emphasizes that:

“With a bit of extra effort from everyone to over-communicate, distributed working becomes much more effective. Setting aside time for individual 1:1s with remote workers as well as regular team meetings to sync up on activities is important. There also should be a mindset to continually see what is working well and what needs improvement.”

Mark also attests to the importance of a shift in thinking – out of sight does not mean out of mind:

“There needs to be a mindset change that colleagues who are not in sight are just as available as a colleague sitting next to you in an office.”

He also clarifies the importance of making sure each employee has all the physical tools they need:

“We also made sure each employee had the right setup to work from home. This includes computers, headsets, right tools/software installed natively for real-time communication with team members.”

If there’s concern from employees about not being in the same physical space and losing connection with colleagues, you can reassure them by explaining that tech can be a powerful human connector – citing examples such as using WhatsApp, Skype, or Google Hangouts to socialize with distant relatives. Any parent who’s seen their kids animatedly conversing with their grandparents through a laptop can attest to that. It doesn’t need to be different at work.

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2. Show trust in your employees

While using tech to track productivity is an understandable solution, sometimes you need to turn to other measures to ensure your workforce stays motivated while working remotely. Simon at Best Sports Lounge focused on the value of positive affirmation:

“I realized that the best way to go around this issue is to establish open communication that’s focused on reward and appreciation. Making sincerity and concern for progress evident in short messages is bound to motivate and inspire your time.”

Matthew agrees:

“I think things such as productivity and engagement are always worries when people discuss virtual, however, managers and leaders will have to adapt to this and give greater trust and empowerment to their employees.”

To succeed in this, transparent and effective communication to your employees is an absolute must. Not only do you need to have clear WFH and remote-work policies in place, but you also need to be clear about your expectations of employees in the actual work. For instance, you might shift your emphasis to a results-driven working environment, as Matthew explains:

“We encourage employees to be task-oriented and deliver results rather than be overly concerned from where they are delivering those results, being a lean team and spaced out around the world means we have to be prepared to deliver virtually.”

Yes, there will be some outliers in your workforce who delight at not having a boss breathing down their neck from one minute to the next, but the majority will respond positively when you show that you trust them to really deliver results for your company. Not only does that reap rewards in the short term for maintaining productivity in the midst of an upheaval in work processes, but there are also long-term boosts in engagement and retention when your employees realize you’re confident in their abilities to deliver.

3. Learn from other experiences

If your company has multiple locations affected to varying degrees by the spread of COVID-19, you can look to those offices that were impacted earlier and learn from their experiences.

Mark of Splashtop speaks to this firsthand:

“One of our offices is in China. After the Chinese New Year holiday, all the 25 employees there worked from home for a month. This measure was taken for the employees’ safety from coronavirus. The office was productive even though virtual. Only last week employees began returning to the office gradually.

“We are now testing in the other offices to make sure everyone can be productive virtually. Right now, employees coming face-to-face with each other, as well as with customers poses a risk to their well-being.”

The scale of response across different companies varies widely, but it’s also worth looking at what other companies are doing – and what they’re sharing about their own experiences.

For example, Boston-based marketing and sales software service HubSpot went fully remote for a week and shared their insights and experiences.

Also, programmer Q&A site Stack Overflow has valuable tips on successful remote work including assigning a remote-work point person, ensuring awareness of and adherence to compliance measures, and even holding regular ‘bev bashes’ to bring colleagues closer together.

4. Share WFH tips and tricks

Let’s face it, not everyone is fully experienced in the art of working from home or across distributed teams in different locations. Some – many, actually – are accustomed to the standard commute 9-to-5 grind, and often don’t have laptops that they can carry around at will.

The other aspect of it not knowing exactly how to get set up in the home. You can quickly train your staff on best WFH practices. For example, certified professional organizer Darla DeMorrow – who has been working out of a home office since the 1990s – suggests organization above all else.

“The objective is to create an upbeat office that minimizes distractions while honoring your taste and style. Gather your supplies in one place. Not everyone has a room dedicated solely as a home office. You can turn an alcove, a loft, a corner of your bedroom, or a section of the kitchen island into an upbeat home office.”

While working online and in the cloud, it’s easy to be distracted and scattered in your work processes – it’s more so when you’re at home and more susceptible to those non-work distractions.

Darla suggests a quick fix which applies anywhere, even for those still in the office:

“Close down browser tabs and apps: Keeping apps and tabs open is like leaving an electrical circuit open just in case. It drains brain resources. Every time you glance at that open tab, you briefly think, I have to get back to that, and there’s the possibility of being distracted. When you finish the work on a subject or task, close the tab. This goes 10x for social media like Facebook and Snapchat.”

5. Ensure security and compliance

Online security and compliance are key to the success of your short-term digital transformation strategy. Breakdowns in IT security are commonplace and can be expensive, with the average cost of a data breach worldwide being $3.92 million according to IBM Security. You don’t want to be one of those victims, especially when you have numerous computers operating via various outlets and different internet providers. Add to that the numerous increased risks for data breach via an employee working on their own home computer.

Mark attests to this challenge in his own company:

“We … have different office locations across the globe that work with each other closely. Additionally, we work with a few business systems which although are web-based, we lockdown to trusted IP addresses for security. We remotely access these on a regular basis, i.e. we remotely connect to a computer that’s secure on our office network to access these systems.”

Will Ellis, the founder of IT privacy consultancy Virtual Australia, agrees that security is paramount, encouraging pre-testing as a precautionary measure:

“We have started to see companies start to test their VPNs as one of the security procedures. VPNs will add a level of security for employees (and the business) who work on a Wi-Fi connection that others might be able to connect to. This will ensure that data can’t be obtained by cybercriminals and keeps this data safe.”

Will, however, notes the issue of a widely dispersed network that’s not contained to a single office or internet outlet:

“Management of different desktop securities, anti-ransomware and anti-malware on each PC, prevention of phishing scams, etc. Security might be a big challenge for companies to focus on, as they may now need to move funds into those areas, but it is worth it to use those funds to keep the business safe rather than having to deal with the implications of a breach of security.”

Wait a sec. VPNs? Anti-malware? IP addresses? Don’t worry. Go to your IT department – and if you don’t have one, bring in a consultant – and put them to work. Also, Gartner has released a helpful and actionable resource for CIOs who need to implement a quick digital transformation strategy in light of the outbreak, speaking specifically to supply chains, security considerations, technology leverages, and other valuable tips.

There’s gain in the short-term pain

Driving costs down is usually a motivator in going fully virtual or remote. But if you’re forced to take the steps in a quick turnaround time, it’s hard to assess how it impacts your bottom line. You can take some relief in knowing it can actually benefit your business in the long term. You might be surprised at the increase in your workforce’s output, says Mark:

“We have all read multiple reports that virtual employees show increased productivity. It’s true. Many employees can focus on their tasks due to lesser distractions. In places like Silicon Valley, traffic oftentimes results in long commutes, which is eliminated for a virtual employee. That way more time is spent on work-related tasks.”

And yes, this affects hiring

Anh noted that a virtual work environment enables him to widen the net when it comes to recruiting:

“I can also cut costs by hiring people from different countries which is a big help in expanding the business. [… Having remote workers makes it easier to expand my business since hiring new staff won’t cost as much as well.”

Matthew also supports this perspective:

“Long term virtual working can help to drive down facilities costs and open up companies to the best talent available, not just the best talent available in their location.”

Recruitment is a huge element of a company’s lifeblood. Not only is turnover a reality in any business, bringing in new employees is also an offshoot of changing priorities, expansion and growth, new market penetration, product launches, and so on. This means a great deal of hiring – and if you’re going fully virtual, guess what? That means your recruitment will have to keep up with that trend by adopting the most up-to-date recruitment technology.

Mark Lee has already stepped ahead of the curve:

“[Splashtop] is expanding and actively hiring. We haven’t begun it yet, but we are set up to conduct interviews virtually. We also hired senior members in remote locations where they are going to start new offices. We heavily incorporate remote work and collaboration in our day-to-day activities, and this can be easily extended to hiring processes as needed.”

In crisis, there’s opportunity

The old adage of “technology giveth and technology taketh away” may ring true to some extent, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say, “technology taketh away, and technology giveth.”

Matthew notes it’s a new reality that we can willingly embrace.

“I think we will be increasingly more virtual given the type of colleagues that we work with as it is important to us and them to have freedom to organize your day, work, and life in a way that suits them and not necessarily be constrained by the need to be co-located in the same location every day of the week.”

For many, going fully virtual is here to stay. Perhaps we can’t hold the dam forever. Banks are giving way to fintech. Shopping malls are giving way to e-commerce. And perhaps physical offices are giving way to fully digital environments.

Anh’s pragmatic about the realities of going virtual and staying there, and it’s not just because of the coronavirus pandemic:

“I think the coronavirus is a catalyst for this trend. People have been shifting to remote companies way before the coronavirus was spread. However, the spread of the coronavirus might convince more companies in the future to go online.”

He sums it up:

“I’ll be staying virtual because this is where the future is at.”

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