Coronavirus has affected people, cultures, societies, and economies worldwide with zero discrimination, testing the mettle of world leaders and citizens alike. It has been called ‘the great equalizer’ by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo. Right after UK PM Boris Johnson was infected, he warned us, ‘no one’s immune’. Donald Trump just asked the Americans to ‘prepare for a very painful time’ on national television. The UN has declared that the global economy will undergo a recession in the wake of the pandemic. Precarious as the situation is, companies throughout the world have decided to be smart and resourceful to overturn prophecies of doom. For companies that do location-dependent work, the going is tough right now. But others have formulated work-from-home policies (some as early as mid-February), quickly realizing that remote working is the way to stay afloat (perhaps even avert losses) in today’s zeitgeist.

Given my experience leading an organization with distributed teams across the United States, Poland and India, I felt it would be useful for many first-timers (organizations and employees alike) to have a ready reckoner of best practices in this new paradigm of a distributed workforce. At West Agile Labs, a remote strategy is part of our core operations, and we’ve done everything possible to ensure our employees are safe, comfortable and productive during these trying times. I hope these tips will help you retain productivity while upping collective morale.

Common sense practices for basic safety in the wake of COVID-19:

  • Educate employees about preventive measures for COVID-19
  • Provide personal protective equipment (PPEs) like sanitizers, masks, etc. wherever needed
  • Keep a regular check on the health condition of all employees, remote or otherwise
  • Transition all meetings and communication to digital, encouraging social distancing
  • Cancel all official travel plans and encourage employees to minimize personal travel

Here are the best work-from-home policies for distributed teams:

Set up a home workspace

Office workplaces are a symbol for fast-paced activities, steadfast focus and outcome-based actions. Home, on the other hand, is associated with relaxation and comfort. Work-from-home entails a constant battle between the conscious mind that knows there’s a report to be submitted in three hours and the subconscious mind that wants to take a nap or stream the new season of Money Heist. In other words, speed, accuracy, and productivity of your employees could be at stake while working from home. 

  • Encourage employees to choose a dedicated workspace exclusively for work. This will put them in the right mental space and minimize unnecessary distractions.
  • Insist on a daily check-in so that the employees are not tempted to begin work late.
  • As with working from an office, a workday schedule is important for prioritizing tasks and necessary planning. Help employees devise and maintain a schedule.
  • Regular breaks are necessary to enhance focus and drive good results. Encourage employees to take a break for lunch, coffee or to just refresh themselves.
  • Define working hours and put together rules to enforce them. While pushing limits to get work done is often necessary, employees need to be assured that work is going on as usual and as per standard hours.
  • Advise employees to change into a different set of clothes for their workday, preferably work clothes in case of video calls and client meetings. For the workday in general, it will help separate “work hours” from “off duty time” at home.
  • Set the right expectations from the beginning for yourself and your employees. Not everything will be exactly as it was when work was being done in the office. Allow for reasonable leeway while clarifying the components that cannot be compromised at any cost.
  • Be flexible when employees are easing into the new flow of work. There may be unexpected delays and miscommunication initially. Employees will be dealing with all household responsibilities without domestic help and the added scare of COVID-19. Spirits won’t always be high. It may take a few days for them to adjust and patience must be granted with healthy amounts of understanding.

Provide the right technology and tools

Ensure the collaboration tools used by your organization/team are installed on all laptops and are functioning. For example, at West Agile Labs we use Slack for messaging, Zoom for video/group calls and JIRA/Trello for project management. 

Based on the requirements of the teams and work responsibilities, it will be prudent to ensure all employees have all the right tools and software ready to go. This reduces the hassle of finding workarounds and doesn’t take away from daily productivity.

  • Set a practice of documenting all meetings and calls on a collaborative tool like Google Docs. This is especially essential in a work-from-home setting as some action points or important tasks may be missed due to unrecorded conversation.
  • With all calls and meetings going digital, a good quality headset and mic with a webcam are essential for all work-from-home employees along with stable internet connectivity. Check-in with your employees to make sure all devices are active before starting a call.
  • Use video conferencing as much as possible since it is the closest to in-person meetings. A lot gets lost in translation without visual cues to help in overall understanding. Invest in a good video conferencing solution for your company (like Zoom or Skype) to make it easier for employees.

Communicate a lot throughout the day

The shift to remote work will be daunting for a lot of us (especially those who have no experience working from home). A remote working strategy that is well defined and effectively implemented will go a long way in avoiding confusion and helping teams deliver their best despite the mayhem that grips us currently.

  • It is always better to communicate a lot rather than having ambiguity on deliverables and tasks. Encourage employees to ask questions and relay any objections using communication tools. Simultaneously, stay in contact with them throughout the day, be transparent at all times,  and make yourself available for questions and guidance.
  • Encourage employees to be mindful of each other’s calendars and schedule work sensitively across time zones so all concerned parties can extract the maximum output from their workday.
  • Quantify what is being done at the end of each day, and by whom. Follow-Ups are essential on critical tasks and dependencies by managers and employees alike.

Focus on improving mental health

More than the virus, it’s the associated fear, anxiety and uncertainty that take a toll on your employees. It’s akin to psychological warfare with misleading information, rumors of apocalypse and panic mongering that bring otherwise healthy mental constitutions close to destruction or paralysis.

  • Let the day be interspersed with interesting team activities and chit chats not pertaining to work. Social distancing is already making people feel lonely. Working from home can make employees feel connected to each other when some fun and entertainment are allowed in small doses throughout the day.
  • Insist on work-life balance and mental distancing. Boundaries between the office and home will blur as everyone is slated to literally bring work home. Continue giving your employees the weekend off and allow them to mentally disconnect themselves from work pressures so that they’re refreshed come Monday.
  • Provide HR support in times of need. This includes but is not limited to free guides/digital booklets/ video counseling on stress management, managing mental health, trauma healing, positive coping methods, and helping with bereavement and grief.

A list of dos and don’ts of working from home

Dos

  1. Check-in with your manager through the day and remain available on the phone.
  2. Instruct family and friends to not disturb or distract you during work hours.
  3. Walk around whenever possible to get rid of any lethargy.
  4. Time yourself for every task so that nothing takes longer than necessary.

Don’ts

  1. Don’t leave work to tend to personal engagements unless they’re absolutely critical.
  2. Don’t leave the TV/stereo on in your dedicated workspace.
  3. Don’t start work right out of bed. Wake up early and plan ahead.
  4. Don’t keep snacking all through the day just because you feel like it.

Times are uncertain and no one’s exempt from new and rising predicaments. Remember that employees may not always be at their productive best. There’s a lot of anxiety with concerns over the safety of family and friends, and rightly so. Work-from-home situations definitely require high accountability but also empathy and trust. You may not be able to be a savior to all, but you can surely be as mindful as you can. This is a stressful time for everyone. Trust your employees to do their best while supporting them whenever needed.

What are some ideas that worked well for you? Anything you feel like sharing? I’d love to connect and discuss how our team at West Agile Labs works from home and collaborates while maintaining accountability and productivity. Feel free to drop me a note at the below address, and  last but not least – stay healthy and stay safe!

Also, if you would like to subscribe to our Covid19 Impact Series Articles, please drop a mail at hello@westagilelabs.com and we will get you enrolled. Some of the articles coming up in the series are:

Article 1: Impact on Fundraising and How Your Startup Can Buck the Trend

Article 2: How to Go all Remote with Software Developers

Article 3: Work From Home Tips – How to Get the Most out of the Lockdown and WFH 

Article 4: Impact of COVID-19 on Software Development Industry

Article 5: Managing the human and business impact of coronavirus