New thinking

Remote working: how to get it right

Covid-19 has led to a mass experiment in homeworking. Can this short-term fix be a long-term gain? Only if employees and managers are trusted and supported.

Remote working can result in increased productivity and better employee morale, but poor execution during the Covid-19 outbreak could seriously hamper your company’s ability to bounce back.

With so little time to adapt to government guidelines on social distancing, many organisations have been caught on the back foot, unable to implement remote working as quickly or effectively as they would like.

Failing to take adequate steps now could be a recipe for disaster, resulting in lost business, inefficiency, frustrated managers and employee discontent.


Huge challenges

Evidence from China, where 200 million people are estimated to be working remotely during the Covid-19 outbreak, suggests companies have faced significant challenges in making the transition from office to home-based working for the masses.

In ‘A blueprint for remote working: lessons from China’, research consultancy McKinsey & Company reveals: “On the personal front, employees found it difficult to manage kids’ home-schooling via video conference while coordinating with remote colleagues. At a company level, many felt that productivity rapidly tailed off if not managed properly.”

Moreover, an article published by global news outlet Quartz suggests a low level of trust on the part of some managers, particularly among smaller businesses in China, with “many workers having to prove they are not slacking off”. This has led to complaints from employees that they feel suffocated and are having to work longer working hours.

And it’s not just in China. Companies throughout the world have been caught unprepared for the sudden switch to remote working.

“A lot of businesses never expected something like this to happen, especially smaller companies,” says Jason Drake, Partner and International Practice Leader at Plante Moran. “Their IT infrastructure does not support working from home. This has led to businesses scrambling to contact IT vendors to get them up and running on VPN networks other technologies for remote working.”

So, what steps can you take to avoid these pitfalls and ensure remote working is a success for your organisation – both now and in the future?


Immediate priorities

In the first instance, to get through the Covid-19 crisis, businesses should prioritise making the remote workplace more productive and engaging, according to global research and advisory company Gartner.

The research company claims “it’s too late to develop a set up remote-work policies if you didn’t already have one”. Instead, in newly published guidance entitled 9 tips for managing remote employees, Gartner says companies should:

  • Use every opportunity to make employees feel supported and cared for
  • Provide the technology that employees require to be effective
  • Promote dialogue between managers and employees
  • Above all, place trust in employees to do the job

In its guidance, Gartner’s Brian Kropp, Group Vice President of Research, says the best thing managers can do right now is “put utmost trust and confidence in your employees that they will do the right thing – which they will if employers provide a supportive structure”.

While large-scale remote working may be a temporary measure for many organisations, the shift in work patterns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have far-reaching consequences for how we work in future, accelerating the trend towards flexible and remote working globally.

This will require companies to adopt robust remote working policies to maximise the benefits of remote working – both for the business as a whole and for individual employees.


Creating a framework for success

In a report called ‘How to cultivate effective remote work programs’, Gartner identifies the main challenges to remote working as: mutual lack of trust; unrealistic expectations resulting in underperforming programmes; loneliness of employees unaccustomed to remote working, and technology issues.

The research specialist recommends appointing “application leaders” to manage remote workplace programmes that include initiatives to:

  1. Foster trust by empowering employees and managers to be more effective
  2. Analyse responsibilities, tasks and roles to determine what work can be done remotely
  3. Set accurate expectations and provide support to prepare employees
  4. Stress-test technology infrastructure

The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively created a massive global experiment in remote working. Unprepared businesses have been thrown in at the deep end are having to quickly learn from mistakes. Even those businesses already adapted to more agile ways of working have had to ramp up remote working far beyond original expectations.


Getting it right long-term

As the McKinsey blueprint explains, much can be learnt from the Chinese experiment. Based on these “learnings”, the consultancy identifies the following measures that companies worldwide may be able to adopt depending on circumstances:

1. Design an effective structure

Establish small, cross-functional teams with clear objectives and a common purpose to ensure everyone is working towards the same goal.

2. Provide strong leadership

Ensure effective, consistent and reliable communication across the entire business.

3. Embed a caring culture

Place greater focus on enabling employees to connect on a personal level and instilling empathy throughout the business.

4. Find a new routine

Establish robust working norms, workflows, and lines of authority.

5. Improve communication

Choose the right communication channel such as phone, email or video conferencing, and the appropriate digital tools such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Zoom (online meetings, conferences, messaging and file sharing), DingTalk (mobile phone communication tool) or Microsoft Teams.

6. Harness technology

Ensure high-speed, stable internet connections, expand virtual private networks for remote access, and incorporate SaaS (software as a service) technology to enable teams to communicate easily, share information and manage tasks.

7. Focus on security

Limit data access and provide training and tools to enable employees to protect data and adopt safe working practices.

8. Be prepared to change tack

If something isn’t working, change it fast. Promote best practices throughout the organisation, share ideas and learn from mistakes.

Some businesses are ahead of the curve. Plante Moran, a member of Praxity – the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting, tax and consulting firms – is one of them. Rated among the top 100 companies to work for in the USA, Plante Moran adopted agile working patterns and technologies long before Covid-19 and was well placed to quickly enable staff to work from home.

Jason Drake explains: “We have advanced, flexible working practices already using a ton of technology tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Yammer to make remote working engaging for our teams. Whether in the office or at home, it’s about providing support for a happy workforce.”

This article was originally written for Praxity Global Alliance, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms. I have updated it for my website.


Further information

A blueprint for remote working: lessons from China

9 tips for managing remote employees

How to cultivate effective remote work programs