Would your business survive with a homeworking workforce?

March 4, 2020
Would your business survive with a homeworking workforce?

Whether it’s an earthquake, a flood, or a zombie apocalypse. Disaster can strike at any time. But what would you actually do if your entire workforce was suddenly unable to visit the office?

The global outbreak of COVID19 (coronavirus) has left employers panicking about what they might do if their workforce was forced into quarantine. For some, this would literally bring business to a halt. For others, flexible arrangements like homeworking could keep things ticking along as normal – or as close to normal as possible.

But working from home isn’t always an easy option to offer, especially for extended periods of time. And if it’s a process you’re not too familiar with, the obstacles you will face might surprise you. So I have decided to look at some of the challenges associated with home working – and the pitfalls to look out for if you’re faced with a sudden office closure.

Homeworking best practice and guidelines

If you have time to plan a detailed homeworking strategy for your workforce, then Acas is a good place to start. As can be expected from a public body website, their advice is pretty dry. But it is easy to understand, and there is plenty of it – including free material available to download.

For example:

–       Homeworking guide for employers and employees (PDF)

–       Sample homeworking policy (Word document)

–       Checklist for setting up homeworking (Word document)

You can download all of this on the Homeworking page of the Acas website here: https://archive.acas.org.uk/homeworking

But of course, while it’s smart to have a homeworking policy, and while it’s wise to have checklists… when disaster strikes, planning goes out of the window.

Contingency planning – nothing beats a trial run

One of the best ways to prepare for a sudden work from home scenario, is to have a trial run – and to have it right now. I know you’re not prepared right now, but that’s kinda the point. In fact, our Head of Information Security, Charles Dickinson, recently made some of my colleagues here at People HR conduct an unplanned homeworking scenario – and it taught us a lot.

The key to this sort of contingency planning is twofold:

1.     Make it mirror reality as best you can. In our example, Charles gave us no prior warning – he simply turned up to work one morning, and selected half a dozen of us to send home.

2.     Make sure you write down what you learn. My colleagues were asked to fill in a short report at the end of the day, which detailed the kinds of problems they ran into without access to the office.

Of course, many of the challenges your business will face will be unique. And that’s why, if you want to understand the most probable homeworking pitfalls you will face, you should conduct your own trial run.

But for now, I’ve put together a few of the things I’ve learned about emergency homeworking – both from the trial run we conducted here at People HR, as well as from the conversations I’ve been having with other business leaders.

1. Get into the habit of using a secure shared drive

Saving work to your hard drive is a bit of an outdated practice for most job roles. With the rise of cloud computing, it is easy to set up secure, shared file storage solutions, to let your employees access their work from anywhere they have a secure internet connection.

“One employee had been storing files locally, instead of using Google Drive” Charles told me, after reviewing the findings of our contingency test. “This wasn’t a security breach, because he was saving his work to a perfectly acceptable company computer. But the computer was not very portable, and when he was forced to work from home, he couldn’t access the files he’d been working on.”

Charles recommends that if you offer employees a way to save their documents to a secure network, instead of locally, then you should probably encourage them to use this by default. If they can get into the habit of saving to your company’s cloud while in the office, they’ll have a much easier time carrying on their work when they’re not.

2. Decide how to access sensitive customer data

One of the trickiest challenges for a homeworking scenario, is deciding whether or not to allow any sort of access to sensitive customer data. Unfortunately, there is no single solution to this – what is right for our company, might be wrong for yours.

“Our employees cannot access customer data from their homes” explains Charles, our Head of Information Security. “But this is a risk-based decision that might not be right for all companies. The key is deciding how it works with your own risk posture – if you shut the doors and don’t let anybody in, is it right that you can’t help customers access their data?”

Charles adds that in an extreme quarantine scenario, we would probably make a special exception, by changing the way employees can login to the admin portal. But this would have to be done in such a way that meant remote access remained secure.

3. Find a way to foster workplace banter

Not all problems are related to data sharing and security. In fact, many homeworking challenges are social or psychological. And according to David Johnson, CTO of Mulytic Labs, one of the biggest problems with homeworking is actually the lack of trust, due to the absence of non-work chit chat.

“In my experience, company trust is built on small talk and casual conversations” David tells me. “When working from home, it is very difficult to build that rapport, as every conversation is an imposition into the other person’s territory – his or her home.”

But although you might find that a sudden homeworking emergency can be fuelled on pre-established relationships for a while, if your office is closed for an extended period of time, then you might find that this begins to erode over time. The natural banter fades, and communication becomes purely digital, and strictly work-related.

But why is this a problem? David says it is all about our ability to understand other people’s situations.

“People have much less opportunity to understand others’ positions” explains David. “They are analysing communications from their own safety, their own home. So they take their own ideas – creating more mistrust, and taking harmless emails more defensively than before.”

David says that in his experience, he has had to spend significantly more time resolving tension when leading a homeworking team, than when leading a team in the office. And in my own experience, I have indeed found that working from home can sometimes feel lonely, disconnected, and lacking that sense for the subtle nuances in tone and conversation.

Using digital communication tools like Slack or Skype can help keep banter going, and get your workforce used to understanding each other better, even when working remotely.

4. Tasks can feel like they are getting ignored

While writing this article, I had a chat with workplace consultant Darcy Miller. Just like David, Darcy told me that many of the challenges home workers face, involve real life interaction – or lack of.

“Some colleagues are constantly busy with meetings, and their emails pile up during the day” Darcy told me. “If you are working remotely, you can’t catch up with colleagues in the hallway or the kitchen, nor can you pop in for a quick question.”

It’s worth noting that constantly catching your colleagues in the hallway to ask why they haven’t sent a report is probably not great etiquette. But Darcy really does have a point in the sense that sometimes, emails really do get overlooked or forgotten – and it’s not until you see somebody’s face by the coffee machine that you suddenly remember that they’re expecting something.

Again, keeping the banter going with digital communication tools like Skype can help with this – or you might want to organised scheduled video call check-ins with your teams, to make sure nobody feels forgotten or left out. Especially if homeworking is a new or unexpected development.

Homeworking isn’t the only kind of flexible working

As I mentioned at the start of this article, it could be anything that sparks a requirement to work from home. I was inspired to write this article because the outbreak of COVID19 made many employers worry about what to do if the government ordered a sudden quarantine.

But this advice is useful for you to take on-board even without the imminent threat of a quarantined workforce.

And remember too that even without disaster, some employees have the right to request flexible working anyway – so it pays to be prepared.


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