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Solved: How HR managers can make working from home work

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Until the coronavirus pandemic came to call, many companies' human resources departments were debating whether to allow remote working. Now, the decision has been made -- virtually overnight -- with social distancing mandates. You're not likely to see much pushback, given that 99% of respondents to a recent Buffer survey want to work at home during some of their career.

Can HR managers ensure their company survives working remotely? Can you quickly minimize any work-from-home challenges? Yes. Here's how, along with more information on how to get the best results from remote workers.

How do you prepare to work at home during a pandemic?

Technology is key. Become best friends with the IT department and stress that these chaotic weeks are the best times to keep things simple rather than roll out new infrastructure. Make sure all employees have company laptops with the same, up-to-date software (unless you're using the cloud), even if it's speedier to reimburse their purchases.

Work with IT on a PDF of security protocols, and a refresher on cybersecurity for less-secure home networks, to ward off increasing cyberattacks. Also decide on your firm's preferred apps for instant messaging and video meetings, such as Slack, Google Meet/Chat, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting and WeChat. Provide remote-working tips and tricks for both employees and managers, such as Microsoft's.

Flexibility for work-at-home employees is crucial, not only because workers prefer it, but because the change in work environment is stressful enough. Employees who have children and spouses at home may need to shift their usual hours to allow for at-home schooling or to avoid competing conference calls. Assure them it's OK, and facilitate any changes with their managers if necessary.

Consider allowing part-time hours or adding paid sick leave like Google and Facebook have for parents who can't juggle work and children at the same time.

Communication can't be stressed enough, especially between employees and line managers. No one wants to feel isolated and uninformed. During this stressful time, ensure that a top executive addresses all employees every week via email or video calls, praising their efforts and updating them honestly on the company's plans and processes.

The CEO of SmartBrief's parent company, Future PLC, has even scheduled Ask Me Anything sessions via Slack. It's also more important than ever to keep up with your company's regular newsletter.

Does working from home affect productivity?

Many work-from-home employees are more productive because they don't have to commute, fewer people stop by their desk to chat and meetings are minimized. A recent Airtasker study discovered that telecommuters worked another 1.4 days every month, or 16.8 additional work days each year, than office workers. That may prove a little more difficult with pandemic-related distractions at home right now, but being flexible will help.

Set the stage for great work by getting everyone on the same productivity apps. While sharing a home workspace with my husband, I watched momentum slow at his company at first as the always-in-person employees struggled to learn Microsoft Teams on the fly. (How do you share a document? What if someone can't connect?)

The internet offers plenty of how-to documents and videos; find the best and share them so collaborative communication doesn't suffer.

If people work individually rather than in teams, rest assured that personal productivity tends to increase for work-at-home employees.

Work with the company's managers to decide if their team members will need to clock in and out on an app like ADP or if it's OK during the crisis to rely on their work ethic. (One industry expert says the more autocratic approach has been making way for a focus on employees' needs.)

What are the challenges of working from home?

The difficulty of unplugging can be a work-from-home downside, the Buffer survey discovered. But even those who home-school children for a couple of hours can help avoid the 24/7 electronic lure by choosing a separate space dedicated to work and, after hours, shutting down computers and closing mail and messaging apps. 

Staying on task can be aided with apps such as Pomodoro Tracker, which encourages regular breaks and helps eliminate procrastination. Creating a regular schedule -- one that allows for the life breaks needed -- will help, too.  

Feelings of isolation can plague some workers. Create a channel on your messaging app for work-at-home tips and frustrations or water-cooler-type conversations, so employees don't lose that personal connection to one another. At SmartBrief, we've instituted nonmandatory happy hours via Google Meet. Future has kicked off a voluntary Run the World challenge through My Virtual Mission, not only to improve camaraderie but to encourage regular exercise.

Expand employee assistance programs as necessary to provide access to telehealth therapists via existing programs or JustAnswer, Doctor On Demand and others.

Will the coronavirus trigger a permanent work-from-home trend?

Chances are good that remote jobs are here to stay. FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics discovered that the number of remote workers grew 159% between 2005 and 2017 -- and 44% in the past five years alone. The nearly nationwide self-isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic will only serve to emphasize the work-from-home benefits:

  • Employees are less likely to spread germs around and thus will have fewer absences.
  • Productivity jumps. HR managers can take advantage of this virus-related experiment in remote working to measure its effectiveness and determine which technology improvements and policy tweaks are needed.
  • The environment gets a boost from reduced commuting.
  • Corporate travel bills may be slashed as people embrace video-chat meetings.
  • Remote employees get to see more of their families.
  • Flexibility means less stress and happier workers.

Looking forward, Buffer's State of Remote Work study says the companies that embrace work-from-home policies attract the best talent, because it's more important than ever to workers in their 20s and 30s, who value this perk. Perhaps the time spent in isolation now will bring even the most grudging managers on board.

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Diane Benson Harrington is a copy editor/writer for SmartBrief. As a freelancer, she has covered various industries. Connect with her on LinkedIn.