The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the small business landscape. While remote working was already available and increasing in popularity, the number of employees working from home skyrocketed after COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect.
More than a year later, small business owners and their employees are trying to determine where to go from here. Fortunately, this unexpected and widespread telecommuting experiment taught business owners some valuable lessons. By applying this newfound knowledge, you can help your employees and your business move forward more efficiently.
Lesson One: Remote Work Increases Productivity
Before social distancing encouraged more businesses to convert to remote working arrangements, only about 33% of the U.S. workforce did any telecommuting. The staff working from home represented a small 6% share. Employer consensus was that employees would waste more time at home than in the office.
However, more than two-thirds of all U.S. workers performed remote work during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Data from this timeframe reflects more productivity, rather than less. A recent Stanford study noted a 13% increase in worker efficiency. An older study by Connect Solutions was even more optimistic, indicating up to 77% more productivity from periodic remote working.
Don’t revert to full-time, traditional in-office work schedules because you are worried about output. Instead, evaluate how your company can include some remote work options permanently.
Lesson Two: Remote Working Has Pros and Cons
No work arrangement is all good or all bad, so the fact that working from home has its benefits and its downsides isn’t revelatory. However, identifying the specific pros and cons is a helpful eye-opener.
Depending on your business, the pros of having team members work remotely may be enough to warrant devoting resources to addressing the cons.
Work-from-home staff is less subject to off-task distractions from coworkers and not as inclined to take sick days. Remote work lifts many geographical restrictions, which increases your options for recruiting new talent. Flexible scheduling reduced wardrobe and commute expense, and the ability to avoid traveling in inclement weather all boost employee motivation and work satisfaction, which bolsters your employee retention efforts.
The cons of remote work center on scheduling and communication issues. Remote employees encounter time management issues both with juggling family interruptions at home and syncing schedule-dependent tasks with in-office staff. Lack of communication can cause workflow issues such as missed areas of coverage, task duplication, buried or lost projects, and the loss of spontaneous and fluent exchange of ideas.
Address scheduling and communication issues to foster a more organized and integrated workforce. Give your remote workers more autonomy with their schedules and breaks. Data shows they don’t abuse it. Allow work schedule flexibility so they can deal with home life disruptions. Set communication benchmarks and expectations on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Use virtual collaboration tools such as project management software. Set core hours for essential availability and allow schedule flexibility outside of those hours.
Lesson Three: Face-to-Face Interactions Are Still Necessary
Eliminating or neglecting social interaction in the workplace is bad for most businesses and their employees. Company culture suffers without ongoing communication between coworkers, management, and other departments. Face-to-face interactions are still necessary to prevent employee isolation and counter-productive silo activity.
In-person interaction helps personalize the work environment. This reminds everyone that they’re a team working toward common goals. It also helps fulfill a human need to connect.
Hold periodic in-office meetings and lunches. They may be weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or even quarterly — whatever works best for your business and your staff. Use software that creates a virtual office space environment and encourages interaction and collaboration. Explore team-building exercises, both virtual and in-person.
Lesson Four: Technology and Collaborative Software Tools Are Vital
Transitioning to working from home full time with little notice was challenging and frustrating for many professionals. During the early stages of the pandemic, employers and workers across the nation quickly learned that an internet connection and a laptop were not enough to perform their jobs.
Staff found out in real-time that they needed additional software, tech tools, and support services. As the weeks stretched into months, it became apparent that cybersecurity and data safeguards were also essential.
Adopt best practices guidelines for remote workers, supervisors, and management regarding security, technical issues, and software support. Task your human resources department to research and develop these policies and procedures. Outsource if your small business doesn’t have in-house HR. Invest in state-of-the-art infosec and cybersecurity services or SaaS. When choosing software for remote work, focus on communication and collaboration tools, virtual office features, project management tools, and software that helps employees transition between home and office.
Lesson Five: Remote Work Can Cause Employee Burnout
Working with no set office hours while feeling obligated to prove productivity, remote workers can lose their ability and willingness to set limits, and in doing so suffer burnout. The office environment naturally includes short, unscheduled brain breaks like snippets of conversation and moments of waiting, such as for the use of office equipment or for a meeting to start. These organically occurring moments of rest are often missing at home, where the employee’s interruptions from workflow are often courtesy of domestic demands.
Without short breaks, a clearly defined end-of-shift, or immediate access to colleagues for support and troubleshooting, remote workers are working harder, longer, and in increasing isolation.
Support a healthy work-life balance for your remote workers by ensuring they don’t have too much work, and by establishing “no contact” personal time. Recognize that employees have additional home demands, such as caring for children and pets, and allow for scheduling flexibility to accommodate this.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a disruptive force for businesses small and large, and the catalyst for change in workforce logistics and human resource management. Public health orders preventing the gathering of staff for normal office operations have accelerated the evolution of remote work to a point where it has become mainstream. Business owners and executives are wise to embrace this new workplace paradigm because it looks as though it’s here to stay.
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