COVID-19: The crash course for going remote quickly and effectively

building a better employee experience
March 19, 2020

It is official! The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 or coronavirus a pandemic. Organizations around the globe have implemented work-from-home policies as a key way to help reduce COVID-19 contamination vectors. Recently, Google (Alphabet) expanded its work from home directive (for those who are able), beyond Washington state to all of North America. The high-tech company also made this recommendation in Europe. Universities in the US have closed campuses and are providing virtual learning. Airbnb, Microsoft, Apple, the European Parliament, the Mayor of NYC, Marsh & McLennan, and many others have addressed the issue with employees and asked workers, especially the “health-vulnerable” to stay home and work from home, if able.


The watershed has begun. Business operations today are all about continuity during crisis or potential crisis. But are most organizations ready? Are corporate clients fully prepared to leverage flexible work as a strategic approach to mitigating risk? The answer is likely, no … but there are ways to ramp up for success should your leadership require work from home as an emergency measure.


Disaster preparedness, risk mitigation coupled with flexible work practices have not necessarily been top of mind for corporate executives — until now. One of the primary reasons organizations should have a flexibility strategy, policy, and protocol in place is for times such as these. However, our 2019 Mercer TAAP Design of Work research indicates that only 1% of firms have implemented a total “virtual workspace environment” where all team members (employees and/or contingent workers) work virtually from home, satellite offices, or third spaces. Only three in 10 organizations leverage virtual work, either full-time (29%) or as needed (31%). However, now that risk mitigation is setting in, 92% of companies surveyed are planning work from home scenarios in response to potential office closures and 66% report (Mercer COVID-19 survey live results: 3-18-2020) flex policy changes to increase work from home capabilities.


The task may seem monumental for organizations that are now in a position to move from 0 to 100 on the remote work speedometer. Many employees, managers, and organizations will be thrown into new ways of managing, communicating, and delivering in an increasingly very real — virtual reality. The future of virtual work and workers is here in ways many did not conceive of six months ago.


Organizations that have knowledge workers, who can work remotely, are now in the position of gearing up to mitigate further risk and keep business flowing. It is now about deployment and operational readiness and this crisis provides an opportunity for deep insights into what operational, business, and customer service processes are truly necessary to operate effectively and efficiently.


Organizations that have already established remote work protocols and contingency plans are ahead in the game. Need a virtual workplace strategy quick? Here are some key considerations to get moving. These recommendations will set up your organization for continued efficiency and success — today and after this pandemic/health crisis has passed.


1. Create a cross-functional response team.
This team should include executives from business operations, finance, HR, IT, facilities, occupational health, travel, cyber security, risk, compliance, and legal to strategize and optimize potential operational and risk scenarios. Get ready to plan for multiple and fast-moving contingencies and establish directives for multiple trigger events. Please read COVID-19 – An employer’s guide: Ten considerations to support your workforce for more ideas.


2. Assess which jobs, roles, and tasks can be worked virtually immediately, and as the situation progresses, as well as roles that could continue to work virtually on a more regular basis after the crisis response is over. Challenge the core response team to think differently about what tasks really need to be done on-site and which roles can be worked remotely with the use of new technologies and agile design thinking.


3. The third and critical concern is technology.
What technology (devices, process, and infrastructure) is needed? —
Laptops, VPN (virtual personal network), “all in one anywhere access” apps, SaaS cloud platform, video conferencing, smart phones? What percentage of the workforce already has a company issued laptop? Will you require additional laptop purchases or rentals, or can desktops be taken home? Will the company reimburse individual employees for internet access (full or partial)? What is the minimum internet speed required? What about other equipment — headsets, printers, extra monitors, webcams, keyboards, docking stations, office supplies, tablets, chairs, and ergonomic desks? Are any of these items required for certain roles, or all roles, and what is the purchase policy or reimbursement policy on such items? Is there a need for specific technology for accessibility? Clarify in writing what equipment and supplies are owned by the company and which are considered company assets. Also clarify the policy for corporate equipment return upon termination of the remote work agreement.


Budget: What is the budget estimate for the purchase or rental of new required technology? Whose line item will this new remote technology expense fall under?  Can HR or IT negotiate with video conferencing companies if your organization needs additional licenses or access?


Security protocols: Are there additional firewalls, encryption, multifactor authentication systems (MFA) required? Which systems are required and in what timeframe?  As more and more companies allow workers to work from home the risk of attacks may increase. What is the cybersecurity education plan for remote employees? This large group of new users distributed in networks at home will require cyber risk mitigation training.


Office space: Will the organization require dedicated office space, clear of physical hazards? Will the organization require a locked space for client security reasons? Will you establish a policy for dependent care? Normally, many organizations require that remote employees arrange for an outside caregiver or another adult in the home to provide dependent care while working from home. However, in this particular situation the essence of the matter requires flexibility and realistic expectations regarding dependent care. It is likely that employee children will be home from school and older parents may be living with their adult children.


Tech staffing: Is your tech team staffed to install and configure new network security or VPN systems? If new company laptops are issued — do you have the staff to set up quickly (but securely) if the company goes 25%, 50%, 75% or even 100% remote within days? The IT team should streamline the number of collaboration programs and apps loaded on each computer to simplify the IT and user experience; which programs are simple, already in use and essential across all LOBs and functions? How will IT leaders scale the demand upfront and further scale as the work from home policy progresses? Will the organization be staffed with enough IT experts to troubleshoot technology issues — especially if a large majority of workers are now learning to use equipment at home?  


4. Legal considerations.
Are there national, regional or local laws that impact the distribution of your workforce into remote positions? There may be tax jurisdiction implications for workers who live (and now work) in a different taxing authority than the office/headquarters. Will your organization require specific personal home or renter’s insurance coverage for equipment? Will you forbid your employees to meet with clients at their home office? What are the legal ramifications for the company’s worker’s compensation policy for injuries incurred at an employee’s home while working? In addition, what policies are necessary to ensure accessibility/disability accommodations?


5. Managing expectations.
Get ready to assuage a lot of fear and assumptions and manage expectations. Both managers and employees may be fearful of working in new ways. A key component of making flexibility work is providing guidance on how to create effective working relationships with peers and managers that deliver results. However, only 33% of organizations offer training to managers on how to manage “flexibly.” Furthermore, even fewer organizations (14%) provide training to employees on how to “work flexibly.” (Mercer Design of Work, 2019) This status has just been upended — organizations that haven’t done this already are in for a crash course.


Managers, supervisors, and leaders:

  • Managers often worry about: How will I manage my employees if I cannot see them? What if my reports do not want to return to the office after the risk is over? How will I assess performance? While the second question is addressed later in this article, the best response to fears number one and three is to ask managers who raise these concerns; “How do you manage your employees’ performance now while they are physically in the building?”  Managers answers should be the same for both remote and office workers: “I evaluate my direct reports based on results and execution against stated goals.”  This type of performance management is location independent.

  • Managers will also need guidance on assessing who is able to work more independently and in isolation from the office (if your organization rolls out partial work from home). HR can help supervisors assess which roles, functions, and jobs are most suitable and what personality traits are most likely to remain committed, motivated, and responsive while removed from face-to-face in-office interactions. Do not make assumptions about generations — i.e., “Baby Boomers may not embrace the required technology as well as Gen Y employees.” You may find that older generations are just as productive as the younger generations and actually enjoy the solitude more.

  • Managers will need extra help in facilitating the technology set-up required by the firm and potentially executing any written agreements that the organization mandates regarding remote work expectations, equipment, and security protocols.  Managers can help employees set expectations and help remote workers structure their daily schedule for success.

  • The feeling of isolation is real for distributed workers; especially if implemented in a quarantine situation. Set up weekly team conference calls and ask that everyone turn on their video to build camaraderie, if possible. Try to schedule half hour weekly video check-ins with each direct report to check in on them personally, build trust, delineate performance tasks, and provide support. Ask team members to check in on their fellow teammates too — to build cohesion and care. If your company already uses social recognition platforms — now is the time to push increased participation to help build confidence and connectedness among team members.


  • Employees will need to know remote work expectations and some will require additional support to successfully make the change. Do not assume that all employees will easily make the switch even if your organization currently allows for ad hoc work from home. Some employees will fundamentally enjoy the solitude of full-time work from home and some will desperately miss the face-to-face interactions at the office. Be prepared to support employees as they transition to new ways to work. Help them understand how rituals like a walk or coffee before work can mentally help them start their day. Many remote workers dress business casual and avoid the yoga pants or pajama bottoms to help them feel professional and motivated.

  • Make sure that all employees working remotely understand how to use the required technology (such as video conferencing, access to shared drives or workflow/project management technology, IM, logging into email from remote location, and setting up call forwarding from office phones to smart phones or home phones) before deploying them to their home offices. This is not a time to upend current in-office systems. Try to minimize the implementation of new technology unless absolutely necessary during this phase of rapid change and potentially steep learning curves for many team members. Try to reduce the use of multiple collaboration products to the most effective and simple platforms across all work teams.

  • Communicate expected work hours, discuss with clients the changes in work location/venue, and expectations for response timeframes for both team members and customers.

6. Communicate!
The number one concern from the onset is communication.

Communicate the near term scenario and expectations weekly — and immediately, if trigger events occur.  If policy changes to travel, face-to face meetings, and virtual work are planned — estimate the onset of the new policy and the duration of the change.  Please read COVID-19 – an employer’s guide: Ten considerations to support your workforce for more ideas.


7. The genie is now out of the bottle. No more business as usual.
Executive leadership and HR should be prepared for push back against old ways of working once the crisis is over. Employees may ask: “Why don’t we have more remote work options on a regular basis?” This crisis-based flexible work experiment will deliver new ideas for the design of future work models. Some employees may want to continue flexible and distributed work and some will want to return to the office as soon as possible, but as an organization your staff improvised and learned many new ways to deliver while working in a distributed network.


Hone in on learnings from this endeavor. What worked, what didn’t work well, and how could little and big tweaks made a difference in negative outcomes or more positive results? What is the most fascinating learning that came from this experiment? Would a more permanent flexibility policy be advantageous for the business, your employees, and for future risk and crisis mitigation? What mistakes were made that can be fixed if a more sustainable flex policy were implemented? What were the costs and overall operational savings or ROI (return on investment)?  Can the travel budget be reduced in the future to allow for more video-based meetings?


Either way — after implementing a mandatory, or a significantly large crisis-based work from home policy — we can bet your organization will not be the same as before COVID-19. You may find that your employees and organizational structures are inherently more agile and more resilient and that may be a silver lining.

Karen Shellenback
by Karen Shellenback

Global Products Leader, Analytics and Research, Mercer