With Covid-19, Work Is Where the Home Is

The spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus has negatively affected virtually every sector and industry. Stay-at-home orders have proliferated across the nation, in many places leaving only “essential” businesses operating in a semblance of pre-Covid conditions.

Other businesses have been forced to furlough workers, lay them off, try to operate remotely, or some combination.

For those businesses still able to operate with remote workforces, one the biggest challenges is keeping their employees engaged and productive while they work from home. This crisis requires that companies stay connected with employees and provide them with secure access to the resources and files they need to do their work.

Telecommuting goes mainstream

Telecommuting has been growing since the idea surfaced in the 1970’s, fueled by the evolution of personal computing technology. However, prior to the crisis, it was still a privilege often grudgingly permitted for small numbers of employees. Last year, just 3.6 percent of Americans worked more than two days per week from home according to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey that was analyzed by consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics. Working from home is now a fact of life for more than 80 percent of employed Americans. Whether it’s sales, marketing, accounting, or operations, people are now tackling their jobs from home.

“We went 100-percent virtual on March 18,” says Megan Raine Gladden, employee experience manager for Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group Architecture. The firm has six offices in the U.S. along with one in Beijing and another in Doha, Qatar. Gladden says that employees whose work was more location-dependent have had some difficulty with the transition, but for most it has gone smoothly. “It didn’t translate well for a handful of employees, but the vast majority of our 325 staff members were up and running in a day or so.”

Gladden’s architecture and design firm had a leg up on many companies. Like many architectural firms, Cuningham has shifted away from paper-based plans to online sharing of projects and data in the last several years and consequently it already had a robust IT department to support secure online collaboration. “We went to laptops and cloud-based [data storage] in the last two years as part of our disaster-preparedness efforts,” says Gladden, who adds the firm has not experienced a major slowdown in business. “Without that, I think we would have had some downtime.”

The key to a smooth transition to remote work is establishing protocols for the use of communication and data-sharing tools, according to Kate Lister, president of consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics . Zoom, Microsoft Workplaces, Skype, Facebook, and a host of other online meeting applications provide effective platforms for communications with clients and colleagues—as do old-school technologies like email and the phone.

“Companies have to determine when people use what type of tools to communicate, share files, and have video meetings,” Lister explains. While companies can and should consider increasingly sophisticated hardware and software for making remote work more secure and productive, she suggests now is not the time to be buying new technologies.

Instead, she recommends common-sense moves such as regular security checks, establishing an IT helpline for employees, and using a buddy system to help employees adjust to their new reality. She also suggests managers arrange to get extra computer screens to employees who are accustomed to using multiple screens, and that they ensure employees have comfortable workspaces at home. “I’ve heard anecdotally that worker’s comp claims are going up,” notes Lister. “This is about getting people the appropriate equipment to do their work.”

Security is the key

The biggest concern is, of course, security. The sudden deluge of home-based computing for work purposes represents a huge opportunity for cybercriminals. The recent “Zoom-bombing” hacks of Zoom sessions are only the most glaring example. Sensitive data about employees and customers is valuable and hackers are gunning for it. “Most companies’ systems were not designed for everyone accessing them from home,” observes Draython Savoi, co-founder and partner at cybersecurity firm CybrHawk and founder and CEO of remote work consultant Global Network Solutions.

While companies can invest in technologies such as virtual private networks to improve security, Savoi advises clients to begin with the basics. Most critical is ensuring that employees’ anti-virus protection through their internet provider is up-to-date. They’ll also need some basic training. Phishing with e-mails and fake websites, along with phone call scams, are the top ways hackers steal sensitive data from employees. Savoi also recommends that all corporate cloud sites that store data have multi-factor authentication processes—such as biometrics, and codes sent to cellphones—before people can access them.

“There is no silver bullet for security. You can spend $50 per person or $1000 and still get hacked,” says Savoi. “The objective is to put up enough roadblocks so it’s not worth hackers’ time and they look for easier targets.”

Keeping control of the performance and productivity of employees who are no longer working on site is among senior managers’ greatest challenges. But Lister points out that for employees, the challenge may be overworking. “It’s hard to turn off at home sometimes,” she says. “These are not normal times for working at home. It’s a psychological struggle for many and a physical one for some.”

Our current crisis-induced experiment with remote working may in the long run provide lasting benefits for companies and their employees. Savoi estimates that the average company can save $11,000 a year for each employee working remotely. In numerous surveys, a majority of employees say they would like to work from home at least part of the time. It may make them more productive. The most recent version of the Gallup State of the American Workplace report,(2017), found that employees’ engagement with their work increased when they spent some time working remotely. The optimal circumstance, according to the report, was for employees to work from three to four days per week outside the office.

And happier employees may ultimately be more productive. “This is a huge opportunity for businesses to re-think how they do business,” says Savoi. “Those that embrace it will bounce back faster from the crisis.”