Working from home may not be something your company has supported in the past. But if you're going to survive (and you're not an essential business), you have to find a way to do it if at all possible.
There are obviously some jobs that can't work from home. But if your business is one of the ones that can shift their workforce online, you can use the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic to build new infrastructure and productivity for the future.
Working from home can lower productivity if it's not under the right conditions. Just ask Nicholas Bloom, the widely quoted author of a famous study supporting work from home.
Bloom is ringing alarm bells, because the study he's best known for was conducted under carefully controlled circumstances. Ctrip, the Chinese company that implemented the work-from-home policy, had a particular set of rules: Only people with a home office could work from home – no one could come in during the workday except the employee, and every fifth day they would come into the office.
None of those things are happening with the people working from home right now. Because children, partners, and family are all at home, there's constant noise and distraction. And with people constantly stuck in the house, Bloom is concerned about a huge dip in innovation. There's no aspect of choice to this either, and some employees just don't want to work from home. Not everyone is cut out for it.
All of these factors are working against your business's productivity. But even though the circumstances might not be optimal, there are ways to maximize work from home potential.
1. Use a video conferencing service.
The video conferencing app Zoom has absolutely exploded in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with everyone from Britain's prime minister to Silicon Valley jumping on the bandwagon. Despite privacy concerns they're working through, Zoom has cemented its place as the platform of choice for a lot of businesses.
Video conferencing has quite a few advantages for businesses that have to work remotely, beyond the text interactions of a platform like Slack. It makes sure people are actually taking care of themselves, for one – no one wants to show up on camera looking like they just rolled out of bed. The upending of regular schedules can disrupt routines, and cause people to stop doing the regular maintenance and hygiene tasks they usually take care of. Video can mitigate that.
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Video also allows you to see the nuances of communication that are missed through audio-only communication. The most famous nonverbal communication study is often misquoted. It depends on the circumstance. The fact remains, though, that seeing someone's face and body language helps you pick up on nuances you'd otherwise miss.
Your workforce is probably stuck in the house, but with the Internet, you can bridge the gap. Don't discount the importance of incidental meetings, too. Be spontaneous. Steve Jobs famously insisted that the bathrooms at Pixar be a long way from the work area so employees would be forced to interact with each other, and it had a huge impact on the innovation of the company.
If you're discussing something in a text-based app like Slack, don't be afraid to jump on a quick call to clarify details. Keep your check-in meetings going. Throw reminders in your calendar to have semi-random video check-in calls with people to simulate the sort of incidental meetings you'd get in the hallway, at the coffee machine or water fountain.
Anything you can do to keep that spontaneity will break up the workday and keep the ideas flowing. You don't even have to talk about work. Social fragmentation is taking its toll on people, and anything you can do to combat that will help productivity, too.
2. Centralize your information.
If your business information is still scattered across several different platforms that don't communicate and aren't accessible online, the COVID-19 pandemic has probably forced you to reconsider.
Using portals and central databases that hold all your information in one place is a huge benefit to your business. CRMs and business management apps are designed to help businesses break down silos between departments, share information, and track their progress and relationships.
Most of the CRMs and other business management apps that work for small to medium businesses are cloud-based, which means they're also easy to use when you're working from home.
Many of these apps are rolling out benefits for an economy that’s been pounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, too. For example, vCita, an all-in-one admin app for small businesses, is integrating with Zoom for more remote capability. Appointments that would normally happen in person can now be set through vcita, with payment and reminders taken care of automatically by the platform. Other companies are following suit. Now more than ever, it's important to make everything as integrated as possible – you don't want to be left hanging on invoices in economically uncertain times.
It's far too common for a business, even one of reasonable size, to have sales information in one system, client information in another, product information in a third and its scheduling in five different apps for each department.
If the coronavirus social distancing has thrown anything into sharp focus, it's that this is completely untenable. Centralize your information now and keep your business on the same page, no matter where employees are working from. Your productivity will be leaps and bounds higher.
3. Keep a routine.
The first thing to slip if you're working from home, especially if you're not used to it, is routine. We touched on this earlier in the section about video conferencing. Video chat helps, because you at least have to make yourself presentable if you're going to be on video throughout the day.
But too many people working from home will let the routine slip, and when you have kids at home, it presents an additional challenge. It's understandable, especially with family disruptions, so you need to be flexible, but at the very least, insist on a check-in at the start of the day to make sure people are sticking to a set schedule.
Work and personal life can bleed together easily in a work from home scenario. That means you and your employees have a responsibility to be even more on top of routine than normal. Here are some good guidelines to follow.
- Insist on a regular start time as much as possible. You can adjust start times if needed and allow for flexibility, especially for employees who have kids at home and might be having a difficult time. But make sure that routine doesn't stop.
- Ask people to set up a separate area for work. This is a no-brainer for those who already work from home, but if they have the space, it's important to have a home office that's separate. If they don't, at the very least, they need a small space they go to when they're working that isn't used for recreation. That helps with getting into and getting out of a work mindset.
- Send occasional reminders about routine. Remind people to get a good breakfast, physical activity and all the regular things that help with a routine. If they're not used to working from home the day can disappear fast.
4. Provide an equipment budget.
You probably wouldn't even think about this if you have a good setup already, but not everyone is set up well to work from home. If they're using subpar equipment, you'll see a correlating drop in productivity.
Ask employees if they have everything they need. If one person's microphone is always a little flaky, cut loose some funds for a new one. A new mouse or keyboard might be necessary. Don't go crazy unless you have the budget, but if your employees are comfortable and not fighting subpar equipment, they'll be more productive.
5. Use this time as a reset.
COVID-19 and its ripple effects are a disaster that the world is dealing with collectively. If it's forced you and your workforce to split up geographically and work from home when you're not used to it, it's probably thrown off productivity significantly.
In some ways, a crisis can reveal flaws you might have been able to paper over in easier times. Something like the lack of proper business management software or a VPN would be easy to put on the back burner in regular times. But when stress pushes your business to the wall, you have to take care of the infrastructure you might have been ignoring.
Reevaluate your business. Are you prepared for another crisis like this if it occurs? Will you bring your entire workforce back into the office?
Take advantage of some of the business services you might have ignored if you hadn't had to move operations remotely. Streamline your meetings. Figure out how to manage projects remotely. Who knows, you might wind up moving more of your operations outside of the office. Use the infrastructure you build through this tough period to prepare you for future success.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world into disarray. But if you're willing to put in the time and effort, you might see a boost from it in the future. Maximize your productivity now, and focus on preparing for the future when you can go back to the office.