Covid-19 is creating an increased need for people to work remotely. In the UK and across the world businesses, schools and governments are imposing ever more drastic ways to slow down the spread of the virus. Even before the virus outbreak, globally more two thirds of professionals work remotely at least one day a week and around half work remotely for half their work time. Thus many businesses are already well versed in the practice, and many of them are accelerating their working from home initiatives.
Businesses that are yet to implement remote working may no longer have that option and must now allow their employees to work from home. Implementing such a policy can be a significant challenge. We will look at some of the things businesses can do to ensure they are ready; see what lessons we can learn from China about remote working, and review the status of some of the flagship tools designed to keep teams connected.
How can businesses prepare for Covid-19 lockdown?
While the trajectory of the Coronavirus is as yet unknown, in many countries up to 70% of the population could contract Covid-19 and, for an extended period, around 20% of the workforce will be in isolation and unable to travel to work. If you don’t already have a plan for dealing with this, then assembling one should be a top priority as time is short. Some critical decisions must be made, for instance:
- Which roles are crucial to operations?
- What tasks can be carried out remotely?
- What are the security implications of remote working?
- How can we ensure data protection and other regulations are not breached?
- Should we set up a VPN for confidential data?
- What hardware is needed, including phones, printers and other office tools?
- What software and tools do we need to keep teams connected?
- How do we monitor the performance of remote workers?
- How do we ensure that all remote workers have all the necessary information, understand their roles, and can reach out should they encounter difficulties?
- How will teams communicate and hold meetings?
- How will they communicate with customers and clients?
Where employees are unfamiliar with the necessary tools and protocols, essential training will be required. Strong leadership at all levels is called for, and it is crucial to maintain high levels of motivation throughout the crisis.
Lessons we might learn from China
In China, Covid-19 has already forced tens of millions of employees to work remotely, usually from the family home. As we report later, the immediate impact was a massively increased demand for videoconferencing apps.
Chinese workers report varied experiences. While some find the home environment too distracting and others complain of intrusive bosses who don’t trust their employees to work from home, many of the new band of home workers report improved productivity and job satisfaction. Homeworking is particularly beneficial to workers who previously had a long commute and can now use that time for their own as well as their company’s benefit.
At offices where people used to clock in and out, the day now starts with checking in to a talk group app and updating daily work reports. Bosses have to adapt the way they monitor their staff. Many managers report that they now have much less control, that administration is more complicated, and that they are concerned about employees slacking off from work to attend to personal tasks. Where weekly meetings were the norm, working from home has resulted in daily meetings with employees reporting each day what they have achieved and what they plan to do tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, many workers say that this reduces their efficiency considerably.
Work-from-home tools and software
Worldwide, the demand for video and chat software that can help businesses in their quest to continue as usual is booming, and high tech businesses are cooperating fully. Google, Microsoft, Slack and Zoom are now providing their software free of charge and are increasing their capacity to service the snowballing demand from users. Some offers on the table include:
- Microsoft Teams Premium Edition is now free for six months.
- Microsoft Teams Limited Edition has had its usage limits removed.
- Google Enterprise videoconferencing features are now available free to existing G Suite customers.
- Slack is providing free online training on best practices for remote working.
In China, there has been a five times increase in conference calls and virtual meetings since the end of January. In the US where several big tech companies including Microsoft and Twitter have instructed their employees to work from home, there has also been a substantial increase. The Microsoft Teams platform usage increased 50% with video and audio meetings up by a third, and there were similar increases in the use of Zoom software. In Italy, there has been a massive increase in the download volume of business apps. Google Hangouts Meet is now Italy’s most downloaded app in all categories.
There are many other team-oriented apps designed for remote working and appropriate for different kinds of business. You are probably aware of the best ones that cater to the way you work. If not, now is the time to find out.
Will remote working break broadband services?
There have been various reports in the press and online that increased remote working will break ISP broadband services. However, many homeworking tasks such as sending emails, updating databases, online messaging, and report writing make only a small impact on broadband networks and are possible on even slow home broadband links. Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack report that there have been no issues. Both major and minor ISPs claim that their networks can handle the increased payload without difficulty and that the UK Broadband network is capable of handling mass scale home working.
However, video conferencing, graphic design and 4K and 8K video processing could overburden some broadband links. Often these problems are solvable with a simple broadband upgrade where improved services are available; however, some areas with inadequate broadband coverage are likely to suffer.
The coming months will be challenging for business. Many are already issuing profit warnings. According to Goldman Sachs, earnings growth will probably grind to a halt. Ultimately, recovery might be quick, or, in the worst case, the pandemic could trigger a recession. To help weather the storm, businesses should use what time they have to prepare themselves and their employees and, where possible, implement a remote working policy. There is an abundance of tools to help you do so. A stitch in time saves nine, so don’t delay.