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Covid-19 & Working from Home: Organisational Considerations

Ross Harling Apr 1, 2020 12:00:00 AM
Desk with computer displaying the message

The following blog is part two of a three-part series that has been guest written by Ross Harling of The author was a long-term CIO & since 2014, has been an EU evaluator for business innovations and disruptive technologies. This series is based on the author’s past experiences of ‘Home Working’ projects, good and bad. Its purpose is to provide ‘good faith’ guidelines & practical ways to avoid the regular beartraps, it is NOT a substitute for legal advice.  

Organisation of the Work 

This may sound obvious, but you and your management team need to undertake a careful review of the jobs and tasks which could be securely conducted from home and those that cannot. The most likely candidates are work activities centred around a workstation and/or phone. If these tasks are shared between a pool of workers or at different times of day, perhaps they could be sensibly re-allocated so at least some staff become home workers 

Work from home hours don’t have to be identical to those at your premises. You could take the opportunity to extend ‘opening hours’ by having one or two home workers starting later in the day and providing an evening phone-in or web chat service for customers.  

In almost everybody’s’ working day we expect and accept small breaks for business conversations, coffee or just a bit of ‘chat’ around the photocopierIn a home working environment those 5 or 10 mins throughout the day might be better accumulated into 2 longer breaks for example: ‘taking the dog for a walk’ or ‘picking up the kids from school’. Alternatively, you could see employees working overtime.

Note: There are work monitoring systems that can record home working activities in considerable detail, but these can quickly cause resentment. Usually, the best approach is an honest open discussion between manager and staff member(s) about a reasonable work pattern and breaks.  

Customer Communications 

In a B-2-B company, the work of Sales and other Customer-centric personnel can involve a lot of travel and face-to-face meetings. Now, this is already severely restricted and may remain so for several months. Whilst e-mail and phone may suffice on a day-to-day basis, there may be occasions where remote conferencing is the right thing to do. Aside from a smartphone link, you may wish to consider the funding of good quality video conferencing software/equipment (Teams, Zoom) and a fast and reliable broadband link (fast upload as well as download).  

Note from experience: If you do provide video conferencing for home use, include lighting for the employee’s face and a background screen placed behind him or her. Nothing can distract more from a business discussion than piles of laundry and children’s toys seen in the background. Or, if you are using Microsoft Teams for video conferencing, ensure employees blur their backgrounds using the “Blur my background” button.

Middle Managers & Supervisors 

In my experience, the groups that have the most difficulty adjusting to a home working environment are middle managers and supervisors. This may be the first time they have encountered a need for planning, organising and monitoring work for people they can neither see nor call out to. It needs a different approach and that involves pre-planning and pre-allocating work to be undertaken and then communicating that in advance and in a clear and unambiguous manner. 

First-line managers should also immediately adopt the habit of communicating a few times during the day with home workers; just as they would in the office, but now by phone, webchat or video link. Those conversations can be short and friendly but still business-like ‘How is it going?’ ‘When do you think that will be finished?’ ‘Is there anything you need help with?’ ‘Give me a call if x changes?’ 

Senior management should play an active part in supporting managers and supervisors in this new role. Some will find the administration of remote workers extremely difficult to cope with.  

Staff Collaboration 

I mentioned earlier that small social interactions between staff that take place every day in every organisation. Quite often these are part of a wider social network that, often invisibly, binds both your organisation and personal friendships together: The ‘quick pint’ after work, that game of squash on Wednesday evening, incessant discussions about the appalling eyesight of referees. 

Social collaboration via Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Slack and many others is now an everyday personal activity for most people, especially younger ones. Should you as an employer encourage and provide a companywide version? Is this a step to maintaining a good social and mental attitude amongst your staff? Or an intrusion into their personal lives?  

You could introduce a weekly video call (Teams/Zoom) for all of the team, to discuss not only work but anything.

In my experience, there is no right or wrong answer as this depends so much on company’s culture and the importance of teamwork. But it’s probably worth asking people if they would like a staff discussion forum to share their experiences.

Continue to part three: Business Considerations of Covid-19 and Home Working