Coronavirus-induced Virtual Collaboration?

Working Remotely is not new. Forcing people to do it is.

The year was 2006. I was nervous. Really nervous. Why? I was planning to ask my boss if I could work from home. Permanently. I had also decided that if she said “no,” I was going to quit. After all, our company had recently been acquired by a big East Coast company and most of the people I interacted with were in Atlanta. Why not?

As I prepared myself for the big ask, I got more and more nervous. My manager sensed my nervousness and started scooting further and further forward her chair to the point where she was hovering over me. Finally, I spilled the beans and blurted out that I wanted to permanently work from home. My boss immediately relaxed back into her chair and started laughing. “I thought you were getting ready to quit, Carolyn. That was a sneaky trick! Yes, you can work from home” she said.

It’s been 14 years since then and have not regularly worked from an office since. I’ve interviewed, hired, and fired from home. I’ve tripped over my power cord from home. I’ve lost power and used a generator to be able to work from home. Now, I can’t imagine it any other way.

The definition of “home” has changed for many of us too. I simply work from the road often. I’ve worked from countless coffee shops and co-working spaces. I’ve worked from hotel rooms and poolside cabanas. I was able to work from my mom’s bedside when she was suffering from an incurable illness. I am so very grateful that I was able to be with my mom during that period of time for hours and hours and hours. She slept and I worked. When she was able to talk, I was right there with her.

Of course, working from home or virtual collaboration isn’t new, but it’s gained a whole new level of popularity with Coronavirus woes in place. The benefits of offering work-from-home opportunities are many, but for the uninitiated, the prospect can also be daunting.

How do I know my people are still connecting and not feeling isolated? How can I get work done without getting distracted? How will I know if my people are actually working? How do I know we’re complying with OSHA laws? What if I take a nap and miss an important call? What about my hourly workers?

So many questions.

First of all, I suggest thinking through how these situations would be handled in the office and then think through how they can be handled while people are working from home.

(1) How do I know my people are still connecting and not feeling isolated? According to a recent article from the New York Times writer Kevin Roose, “I’m writing this from the makeshift quarantine bunker in my dining room — sweatpants on, hand sanitizer nearby, snacking my way through my emergency rations. I’m getting plenty of work done, but I’m starting to get unnerved by the lack of stimulation. It’s been hours (days?) since I interacted face to face with a human who is not related to me, and cabin fever is setting in.” This may be typical for workers thrust into work-from-home situations. So what can you do? Answer: Encourage your people to initiate spontaneous conversations. Look for an employee engagement app and cause to connect with coworkers. Bounce ideas off of each other. Look for that lone late-night worker who’s still online, just like you. Take a moment to publicly recognize and thank them. Join an online work group who’s discussing something interesting — It doesn’t have to be work-related. There are technologies that can help determine the key drivers of employee engagement, even when working from home. Coaching and mentoring employees — and having an automated system for that — can really help as well.

(2) How can I get work done without getting distracted? Let’s look at work in an office. Inevitably, you’ll have chatty coworkers, a copier making a distracting rattling noise, someone from another department incessantly pinging you, a cell phone that seems to enjoy chirping at you just to see you jump, or perhaps smells of a freshly-microwaved salmon lunch will come wafting through the halls. What can you do then? The things you do in the office you might be able to do at home too: Close your door, put on headphones, put yourself in “do-not-disturb” mode, hang a sign on your door that says “do not disturb,” or put your cell phone on silent mode.

(3) How will I know if my people are actually working? This is related to the question above, but let’s look at it more closely. If someone was in the office but writing a novel instead of answering important emails, how would you know? What if someone was napping on the job, but had their office door closed? How would you know? Results-based performance metrics solves most or all of these problems.

(4) How do I know we’re complying with OSHA laws? Work-from-home laws are a bit complicated and vary from state to state, so I recommend consulting with a corporate attorney for these types of questions but at a minimum, a work space at home should be safe for an employee to work from. The work space itself may need to be inspected and declared acceptable. Does the employee have a suitable, ergonomic chair? How about a cross-cut shredder? Adequate light? Is the work space free from tripping hazards?

(5) What happens if I take a nap and miss an important call? Again, I’d ask: What happens if you’re at the office, nod off, and miss an important call? You would probably have to grovel, beg for forgiveness, and call the person or people back. Better yet, if you must take a nap in order to remain productive, set an alarm.

(6) What about my hourly workers? Fortunately, there are plenty of time-recording technologies that can be used from home on a computer. If a person’s work is time and availability-based, simply have the person log in and log out to record their time. Each organization will probably have their own tolerances regarding how close to starting or finishing time they need to log in; this is no different than logging in at the office.

I sincerely hope this helps during a time of turmoil and slight confusion. Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to hear more strategies that would help with a brand-new, Coronavirus-inspired work-from-home situation. It can be extremely helpful when looking at talent analytics. Thank you.

Carolyn Peer

CEO & Cofounder of Humaxa, Inc.

Formerly with ProBusiness, Inc. and ADP

20 years in AI, Talent, Performance, and HR Technology

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