Career Center

Tips for managing workplace disruption during the coronavirus pandemic

The Corona virus pandemic has suddenly expanded the boundaries of what organisations thought flexible workplace policies could accomplish. Efforts are being made by traditional workplace cultures like utilities and universities to encourage remote working in order to keep employees healthy and stop the virus from spreading. Many organisations that had large numbers of remote workers before the crisis have found they need to expand their remote work program in an unexpected manner for a long period.

Disruption in the workplace might be inevitable for businesses across all geographies and industries. In addition to being better prepared for future crises, companies that are able to effectively manage that disruption will be better equipped to maintain business operations throughout the outbreak. The workplace strategist and corporate real estate leader can shape productive and engaging workplace behaviors wherever employees work from remote locations, especially as employees pack up their laptops to work from remote locations.

Following are tips for ensuring employees have the tools and support they need to be productive, effective and connected while working remotely.

1. Place a high value on health and wellness

During this time of crisis when COVID-19 is spreading to an ever-growing segment of the global population, every organisation should prioritise protecting its talent, customers, vendors and other stakeholders. Numerous organisations are taking steps to slow the spread of the virus by closing their facilities (or parts of them), and implementing remote working plans.

Employees working from home keep a large segment of workers safe, but what about those who are unable to work remotely? There are some organisations that confine mission-critical functional areas that must remain operational, isolating them in physical spaces so that employees can do their work without coming into contact with others. Energy companies are even considering having their operators sleep in the plant to minimize exposure to germs.
It may seem extreme, but considering how important it is to address "building health" issues such as ventilation, air filtration, cleaning and facilities management preparedness, such measures will no doubt be disbanded when social distancing is no longer necessary. Health buildings remain a popular choice for many people for a long time to come.

2. Set up a virtual workplace with the right infrastructure

An online workplace combines many of the same features as a traditional office setting: areas for collaboration, sharing ideas, and completing work. It can still take a herculean effort to ensure every employee has the essential technology to function effectively in that virtual environment, such as laptops, a VPN, file-sharing systems, mobile phones and Wi-Fi at home.

Organisations will need to provide access to the right collaboration and communication tools for virtual collaboration in addition to this basic infrastructure. People who must collaborate are often located in close proximity to each other when workplaces are designed. The next step is to create a similar concept online. By providing employees with tools to communicate-and informing them about how to use them-you can make the difference between a well-connected organisation and one where people work in separate silos.

Supporting people while they get set up to work remotely can benefit from having a digital workplace manager or team. The support team could include a workplace designer who provides the advice and tools needed to set up ergonomic workstations at home, as well as an employee help desk that assists employees with the complexities of setting up their systems at home.

3. Develop virtual culture initiatives to deal with productivity/engagement pits

Even coffee shops and bars are closing down in many cities, so working from home without much in-person interaction can feel isolating for some people, which can harm both productivity and engagement.

The organisation should take proactive steps to combat these impacts by ensuring that employees feel connected even if they are not in close proximity. The use of virtual coffee talks, happy hours, and book clubs, as well as avatar-based socialization, can greatly contribute to achieving that goal. Even if they do not quite substitute for carefully curated office lounges, coffee bars, and community events, they can foster a sense of community until normalcy returns.
It is important to consider the challenges your employees will face during the social distancing of COVID-19 when determining how to reinforce the organisational culture. During the course of their workday, single, extroverted employees may experience deep loneliness, while working parents may have to deal with the challenge of caring for small children and managing home schooling. They may not share the same desire or ability to take part in virtual cultural events, but all employees can benefit from regular phone or video calls with their direct teams about work-related matters, as well as collaboration tools that make it easier to work together.

4. Find a work site outside of the office and the home

Some employees may not have access to the corporate office as usual, but working from home is not an option-either because their role is too sensitive to be performed in an unsecured environment, or they need access to equipment or programs that are not available remotely, or their home environment is not conducive to working.

Many organisations are exploring alternative work sites, such as sterilized co working spaces. In the case of such an option, you should understand what the sanitation processes and schedule are, and who has access to the facility. A network of alternative work sites where employees can be productive during an emergency may become more important for organisations in the long run.

5. Communicate in both directions

Transparency during these fast-changing times requires clear communication. You should establish protocols and guidelines to communicate information to employees and business partners about your infectious disease outbreak response plans. It is possible for employees to access workplace policies and updates through an internet site.  

Additionally, avoid miscommunication by ensuring the appropriate dissemination of information and avoiding “fake news.” (An infodemic refers to an overabundance of information - some true, some false - that hinders finding quality advice and resources when necessary.)

Employees will be concerned not only about the effects on their workday, but also about the longer-term implications for the economy and their careers. Make sure you communicate early and often about the pandemic's impacts on your business and the expectations for employees during this time, and set up channels for employees to provide feedback.

How will COVID-19 change the future of work?

There is no way to predict what the long-term consequences of today's sudden, massive shift to remote work will be, but a few outcomes are possible. Employees and business leaders alike will come to see the value that can be realized when each individual is free to work where and when it makes the most sense-which may be at least part of the time from home. 
Despite all that, it's just as likely we will emerge from this period craving the face-to-face interaction that has been sorely missed, and with a deeper knowledge of how the physical environment affects the way we all feel and work. The role of workplace strategists and designers will increase in importance as we shape the future of the spaces and places where we can connect, work productively and be inspired.