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Your employees are working from home. Now what?

It will be just fine if I don’t read another joke about business casual pajamas on my social media feed. Like many of you, I’m marking two-months-plus working from home brought on by COVID-19, the crisis that created millions of at-home workstations, in what seemed like the blink of an eye. As the leader of a business, you may be finding yourself asking: now what?

By: Gal Rimon, Founder & CEO, Centrical

Your employees are working from home. Now what?

It will be just fine if I don’t read another joke about business casual pajamas on my social media feed. Like many of you, I’m marking two-months-plus working from home brought on by COVID-19, the crisis that created millions of at-home workstations, in what seemed like the blink of an eye. As the leader of a business, you may be finding yourself asking: now what?

In trying to piece together an answer to that question, I realized this crisis – from the perspective of operating a business – has three stages to be navigated. Each is distinct but how one is handled, in my view, impacts your company’s ability to make it through the next, with the third stage presenting the greatest challenge to your business’ capacity to weather this incomprehensible storm. The stages are:

  1. Technology infrastructure transformation
  2. Employee transition and stabilization
  3. Performance delivery normalization

 Technology infrastructure transformation

This stage is about moving equipment and services from a company’s offices to the homes of its employees. It’s a logistical operation to relocate assorted corporate assets, like computers, monitors, and mobile phones, among other items. It’s also procurement in that the on-hand inventory of laptops was woefully inadequate and new ones needed to be purchased and sent to employees’ homes. On the surface, not a tough thing to do, although numerous sources, including The Wall Street Journal, report a scarcity of these computers, making it not quite so simple. But, for the most part, it’s deal-with-able. It also involves IT services like setting up virtual private networks (VPNs), deploying different software applications and reworking aspects of security protocols.

Once employees have the tools they need to do their jobs and all is functioning as it should, this first crisis stage is handled. There are those who’d say this is the easiest of the three. I share that view. In part, we can thank cloud computing for that.

 Employee transition and stabilization

This second stage has been getting a lot of attention. Unlike the first stage, which is all about things, this one is about people; living, breathing, emotional people. And, while it’s been said already, we humans are complicated. What’s more, there’s a mind-boggling number of people now in working from home (WFH) mode. According to a Gartner survey of 800 human resources executives, 88% of their organizations have directed their employees to WFH.

Take employees out of their workplaces and work routines. Separate them from daily interactions with their team members, especially those conversations in the break room. Put them in an environment that’s isn’t intended to be all about work for hours at a time. And you have a series of hurdles to overcome in this crisis stage. Again, a set of three:

  • Employee Isolation
  • Business volatility
  • Business agility

The sense of isolation is real

The sense of isolation your employees have felt since they made the shift from office to home is very real. That feeling has been ebbing and flowing as the days and weeks WFH pass. To state the obvious: it’s human nature. I use our own employee engagement and performance management platform to pulse-check each employee every day. With it we learn what each employee’s mood is like. How they feel about their workload. Are they taking care of themselves, exercising and eating healthy foods. A manager cannot simply look up and see if an employee is overstressed, overworked or overeating to their detriment. You need to use tools, like we do, to manage effectively when employees and managers are working remotely.

That means you must make an extra effort to communicate with your employees – and encourage them to communicate with each other – to keep everyone connected. The more frequent, fact-based, targeted, and personalized that communications are, the better. To be clear, it is not simply about pushing information. Make it bi-directional to overcome a sense of isolation with a sense of connectedness. Do this to have your employees absorb, acknowledge, and utilize that information. And make it available on any device. Computer, phone or tablet. Employees WFH may have to give up the computer so their children can participate in their online classes.

Under the present circumstances, even your top-performers might opt to pull the covers up and stay in bed for an entire morning. Don’t scoff at that not happening. If your employees don’t set – with their managers – daily goals and track their performance in real-time it can happen. Managers, especially in a WFH setting, because they’re busy will tend to think everyone is busy. If you don’t employ the methods I’ve suggested, they won’t know who’s twiddling their thumbs and who’s drowning in work.

Along with that – and a key reason why bi-directional communications is so critical to make it through this crisis stage, is the absolute need for closed-loop communications. With that in place, managers can truly hear the voice of the employee, identify performance issues before they become insurmountable, and recognize knowledge gaps that are impacting performance.

 

The only constant is change, particularly in a crisis

Yes, it’s a cliché. But it fits here. The plans you had in place blew to bits with the arrival of this crisis. And so, it fits. Maybe better than ever. I feel we’re in a Darwinian moment for all sorts of organizations. Those that adapt to this rapid and constant change have a better chance at survival than those that merely modify. And crucial to creating that will be your ability to go beyond readying your workforce for this volatile business environment but to keep helping them to adjust to frequent changes in their responsibilities, and more.

To accomplish that you need to be able to quickly reskill, upskill and not just transition them to WFH, but to new roles – that may well change from one week to the next. You also need to help your employees shift their focus to new goals – for themselves, their team, and the company. This means implementing fast-track, on-the-job training, or retraining, programs that utilize best digital, remote learning practices. In particular, there’s the need to use personalized microlearning, the learning method that presents bite-sized information that can be easily absorbed and applied, all in the flow of employees’ work. This approach permits quick shifts in what needs to be learned, by whom, and when it can be optimally consumed.

Here the closed-loop comes into play in a major way. In this crisis, it is not enough for employees to engage with and complete a learning activity. They need to take that learning and use it in their work; immediately. Of course, you need to see if the learning was completed and mastery of the topic was evidenced, you need to see how it affected their performance. When managers can see that they’re able to manage employees well, even when miles away.

Another impact of change is its effect on goals. You need to be able to change them. Ideally on the fly. And you need to convey that to employees in ways that will prompt them to step up to the challenge with enthusiasm and focus. Here game-based challenges with opportunities for rewards and recognition can work wonders.

In comparison, stage 1 of this crisis is a process. It has a starting and an end point. You got your employees equipped and ready to work. Stage 2 is more of a program. It’s ongoing. There’s no true end point. You must engage, train, and motivate your employees on an ongoing basis. Otherwise, the challenge of stage 3 is beyond daunting.

 Performance delivery normalization

Here’s the now what part. You’ve outfitted your employees with what they need to do their jobs. And, you’re making daily efforts to keep them feeling good about themselves, about their work, and what may lie in the days ahead.

Now what about your customers? What can you do to serve them as well  – if not better – than before we collectively went into quarantine? How will you deliver the performance they want, if not demand?

The simple answer is to not stop doing what won and has kept those customers as customers. As best you can, exceed their expectations. Be amazing. Wow them. But let me also suggest two things you strive to instill in all your employees: accountability and responsibility.

When my son was a toddler she’d say, “I’m the boss of me.” It was his way of saying it’s up to her to get it done; to take control and do it. In our WFH situations, we’re all “the boss of me.” It’s up to each of us. WFH also means employees are making all sorts of decisions on an individual basis. As if they were all CEO’s seeing to the health and well-being of themselves, workwise and otherwise.

This is even more the case for team leaders, first and second tier managers. They need to come to understand what COVID-19 is all about and how it’s altering the path of their teams and companies. Further, they must work to be better managers, leading teams of employees scattered across the globe. In addition, they have to be on point about their company’s value proposition within the context of this crisis. And, they need to learn how to sell or serve.

In some respects, it’s useful for them to look at their team as customers. During this crisis, like customers, team members are stressed and may not have much patience left. No matter how many photos you’ve seen of cats sitting on computer keyboards, you have to know the owners of those felines got annoyed and pushed them away to get some work done. By making that extra effort to see to it that team members are aware managers are there to help to solve problems and make things right, team performance won’t be hampered.

And lastly, your customers. They’re where the performance delivery rubber, quite literally, meets the road. They underscore how stage 3 can be negotiated only if stages 1 and 2 are handled properly. If your employees don’t have the tools, the focus, drive, knowledge, and confidence to deliver a satisfying customer experience on a consistent basis you’ll never get through this stage.

Monitoring and measurement really matter here. Specifically, focusing on the KPIs that reflect or impact customer satisfaction – can make all the difference. I’m of the opinion that companies that do right by their customers at this moment will have them well after the pandemic is an uncomfortable memory.

Whether you’re a B2C or B2B company, your customers are under much the same pressures you are. Empathy matters. Perhaps more than margins or cost control. At least now.

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