Working From Home During the Coronavirus Outbreak? Here’s What You Need to Know

The author's home office

By Jonathan Spira on 18 March 2020
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If you are at work right now and you stop to look around for a moment, you probably see… home.  Hundreds of thousands of knowledge workers, managers, and administrative staff have found themselves doing just that.

Covid-19 is creating a mass experiment, the likes of which were never envisioned by telecommuting advocates.  Yet, here we are, separated from our colleagues by just a click on IBM Sametime, Slack, or Apple iMessage, yet unable to tap into the office snack basket, the great brews the office barista would make on Fridays, or that particular brand of cheese that was available in the pantry.

Last week, companies of all sizes had to make a decision that essentially was to either go out of business permanently or start telecommuting.  Almost all that could opted for the latter.

Having largely telecommuted for the past two decades, with only occasional forays into the office, I have witnessed the idea come in and out of favor multiple times, including right after the September 11, 2001 attacks and the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, as well as the threat of Ebola and various transportation-related strikes.

Many managers are averse to telecommuting because they fear that their employees won’t actually be working.  Nothing could be further from reality, and my own experience and my company’s bear this out.

Indeed, my employer, Accura Media Group, is far from alone.  With the exception of a few accounting and administrative functions, everyone at Accura telecommutes.

Still, seemingly out of nowhere,  managers began to argue that placing workers together in the same physical space would hasten the speed of work and spark innovation.

IBM, which markets software and services for what it calls “the anytime, anywhere workforce,” had boasted that 40% of its workforce telecommuted.  That ended in 2017 after 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue, and IBM called many of its telecommuters back to an office (the company currently operates in over 170 countries).

Yahoo called its telecommuters back to the office in 2013 and Aetna and the Bank of America made similar decisions.

Clearly, the managers who rather summarily ended telecommuting didn’t see a global pandemic heading towards us.

Working from home can reduce one’s carbon footprint, a phrase not yet in common use when IBM pulled the telecommuting plug, and helps right the ship when it comes to work/life balance.

Employees see multiple benefits including significantly reduced commutes, lower dry cleaning bills for business attire, and improved health, in part through more sleep each night.  Companies benefit in most cases with an improved ability to attract and retain talent, increased productivity, better engagement, and far lower real-estate and utility costs.

Still, in many cases companies and workers aren’t set up for remote work, even though almost half of the jobs in the United States could be performed remotely. Even though over half of the workforce telecommutes on rare occasions – think blizzards and other interventions by Mother Nature – such remote work is typically thought of as being “stop-gap” and not a permanent solution.

One additional issue that won’t necessarily be the norm in the future is the presence of one’s partner and perhaps one’s children at home during the coronavirus outbreak as schools start to have their students telecommute as well. This is of particular concern when it comes to the all-present conference call.  While some may shudder at seeing children briefly appear in the background, or hearing a dog bark, it will likely go unnoticed.  Besides, by this time, everyone is in the same boat.

Still, when child care options are limited or non-existent and a spouse who usually works outside the home is present, things can still be challenging for the telecommuter.

“It’s hard to get work done with the kids home,” said Laura Ford, a PR executive at Hilton Worldwide who regularly telecommuted before the coronavirus outbreak as well.  “No one wants to treat their coworkers to a toddler’s rendition of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse theme song.”

Earlier in day, I was on a two-hour video conference call with colleagues in England, Illinois, Israel, and Slovakia, among other places.  It made absolutely no difference to those of us on the call that one colleague’s two small children made multiple appearances in the background, nor did it seem to throw him off kilter.  I’ve been on multiple calls from home where I get briefly interrupted by the doorman or concierge bringing up a parcel or at a hotel where room service appears with breakfast.

To tide us over during the coronavirus telecommuting period, it’s important to remember that managers must remember to set clear expectations of what’s to be done and how, and they must not forget to offer praise or criticism even when the employee isn’t visible to the naked eye.

It’s important not to oversupervise.  One manager I knew of would get furious if he called a telecommuting employee and got voicemail.  As a result, people who worked for him spent most of their time watching the phone to ensure that they answered his call above doing work or participating in remote meetings.  It’s also important to ensure that employees have the right tools with which to perform their work, although that topic is beyond the scope of this report.

Still, people will eventually move back to the office, or at least most of them will. When that happens, it will be important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to retain the lessons learnt about telecommuting as well as the practice of it, where it would best apply to the business.

Telecommuting can transform people’s lives – and it can transform a department or small business.  And that just very well may be the silver lining inside the pandemic cloud.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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