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How can businesses best support staff working remotely?

With companies across the UK having to suddenly change how and where their staff work, our guide offers the best ways to provide support for a scattered workforce

Once seen as an optional benefit, remote working has quickly become standard practice for many UK businesses.

With the government declaring that everyone who is able to work from home should do so in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses have been forced to quickly change how and where their operations occur with no agreed end date in sight. 

Although everyone is likely to enjoy not having to commute, what does this mean for workplaces that were, up until very recently, usually centered in an office or another premises?

Now, business in Britain is no longer conducted in person but online, with meeting rooms swapped for living rooms, and kitchen tables taking the place of desk banks up and down the country. 

While working from home allows employers to give staff more control over their work day, the scale and speed at which these changes have occurred can cause other challenges.

Perhaps your company already offers staff the option to work remotely, or maybe your business is having to take its first (virtual) steps on the journey to remote working. Whatever your situation, there are practical methods you can use to help ease this transition.

Read on to discover our top tips for promoting a safe, productive workplace wherever that may be.

1. Ensure safe workstations

Health and safety in the workplace is paramount – before, during, or after a global pandemic – and this applies when team members are working from home, too. 

To work from home successfully, a team member will need the following essential items:

  • A computer
  • A reliable internet connection
  • Access to messaging and video conferencing tools

Ideally, staff will have work areas that are ergonomic-friendly, including a supportive chair, two monitor screens, a keyboard, and a headset for making calls (if necessary). 

While this is the remote workspace goal which we should all aspire to, sometimes it’s not possible or practical for team members to have this setup. This is especially the case given how quickly businesses have had to adapt to the current circumstances.

Potential ways to manage this include:

  • Send out a working from home ‘cheat sheet’ – include best practices and ways to modify existing setups, e.g. using headphones to take calls
  • Provide/pay for any necessary equipment – you could offer to reimburse staff who need to purchase any items to create their at-home workstations, just as Twitter has
  • Have appropriate insurance in place – in addition to the essential employers’ liability policy, ensure that your business equipment is covered outside of your premises, such as work laptops and phones that are being used by staff at home

2. Protect company data

Another key area for businesses is ensuring that files and other company information is secure. With your employees away from the office and scattered across multiple locations, there’s an increased chance of company data being compromised.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to promote technological security some of which you may already be implementing:

  • Encrypted files – for protecting sensitive or confidential information
  • Strong passwords – for initial safeguards against unauthorised access
  • Cloud-based storage – for quick, easy, and secure remote access to files. Google Drive and Dropbox are two of the most well-known applications

But it doesn’t stop there Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) also offer a private connection to the internet. Essentially, a VPN acts as a buffer, allowing for more secure remote access. 

Some of our top VPN picks include: 

  • ExpressVPN
  • NordVPN
  • VyprVPN

3. Maintain a routine...

While it may feel like the world has been turned upside down at the moment, there are actions you can take to keep some sense of normality. This is beneficial for both your team members’ morale and productivity, and for your business operations. 

  • Run meetings as usual, virtually
  • Keep set times for working hours and breaks

Tools that can help with this include:

  • RescueTime – for managing work hours
  • Google Hangouts, Skype, and Zoom – for audio and video conferencing

Some of these platforms may incur a charge, but if you scout around, you may find free access. Many tech companies have lifted the fees on some of their products to help businesses during this public health crisis. 

For example, Google announced that advanced Hangout features such as the ability to have up to 250 participants on a call, and to record meetings that can be saved to Google Drive would be made available free of charge to G Suite customers.


4. …but stay flexible

While sticking to the status quo can help to maintain calm and anchor staff who are physically separated, it’s important to recognise that these are unprecedented times.

A solution is to offer flexitime, if you haven’t already. With schools shut, this could be ideal for parents who may now need to balance work duties and childcare. And such a policy can be beneficial for other caregivers, too staff who look after elderly relatives or other vulnerable people, for instance. 

You could also extend this freedom to all team members. After all, one of the main benefits of working from home is cutting out the daily commute. Consider letting your staff have more flexible start and finish times, to use this newfound time to help promote a better work/life balance.


5. Create clear communication

Leading a remote team involves keeping staff connected and informed, especially during an ever-changing public health crisis.

Whether it’s sending out company-wide comms or messages on an individual or team basis, your business needs a clear communication strategy. 

Consider the following points to help overcome communication challenges:

  • Use ‘rich’ technology to stay in touch – alternate between messages, email, video, and other formats to keep people updated remotely in a variety of ways 
  • Create response timelines – outline how and when you expect responses via different mediums, e.g. “all team meetings will take place via video call”, “staff are to use messenger apps for office chat”
  • Organise regular catch-ups – generally, you should communicate with staff each day. This could be one-to-one, in teams, or a combination of both
  • Video call as much as possible – this provides that all-important face-to-face interaction, which is particularly crucial as staff are increasingly isolated socially too
  • Bookend the day – whether it’s a quick message to say hello at the start of the day or to sign off at close of play, take the time to check in (and out) with your team

The communication toolbox

Here we highlight some of the main software and applications, as well as types of communication, that can help your team to stay in touch.

  • Google Hangouts – for messaging and calls within Gmail accounts
  • FaceTime – ideal for calls between Apple devices
  • Skype – for audio/video calls via an app, regardless of device or email system used
  • Zoom – ideal for screen-sharing using audio/video calls for teamwork
  • Slack – a virtual replacement for office chat
  • Trello – for managing project workflows in a clear and visible way 
  • Phone calls – ideal for a specific purpose to individual team members 
  • Text messages – for sending brief communication to staff quickly
  • Emails – for company-wide updates and information, as well as external comms

6. Be mindful of mental health

Unexpected changes to routines, endless access to negative news, and general uncertainty across the world can all take their toll on people’s mental health. As an employer, you can do your bit by offering advice on how to work from home productively and healthily (as discussed above). 

One way to extend this is through an employee assistance programme (EAP). This is a service that’s provided by companies to assist staff with all manner of issues, such as legal and housing queries, as well as offering counselling services. Remind your staff that they can access the EAP if they need to, or use this as an opportunity to set one up. 

Another option is to provide access to health apps. Some of the most well-known for mindfulness include Headspace and Calm, the latter of which has curated a collection of free resources, including meditations and masterclasses. 

And to encourage staff to stay physically healthy, 30 Day Fitness offers workouts, exercises, and fitness plans (and it was ‘App of the Day’ on iTunes at the time of writing). You could simply share a list of resources with your employees, and/or pay for access to content where needed (and possible).

Each day, you can care for employees’ wellbeing by:

  • Asking people how they are adjusting to remote work
  • Leading by example: discuss the situation, and provide encouragement

With the Mental Health Foundation reporting that productivity can increase by as much as 12% by addressing wellbeing in the workplace, this makes sense both ethically and practically.

Hannah Meredith, Health & Wellbeing Advisor at MVF, comments:

“During this period of enforced remote working, mental health and wellbeing is going to be more important than ever. Businesses should be very mindful of this, and provide extra ways to support their teams. 

“If you have the resources to be able to provide meditation apps or guided sessions and live fitness or yoga classes, these can be really helpful to help people to feel connected, as you are all taking part together. 

“There are plenty of things you can do that require no investment, such as: 

  • Video call as much as possible, rather than using email or telephone
  • Introduce virtual coffee and lunch breaks
  • Create fun online quizzes or games
  • Give your employees time out of their working day to get fresh air, clean their house, or care for their family

“Ensure to ramp up your comms regarding resources you have, such as Mental Health First Aiders or your EAP service. At MVF, we have published a phone rota for when our Mental Health First Aiders are available to chat with anyone who might be struggling with their mental health. Checking in on those on maternity leave or are due to go on leave soon should be made a priority, as well as any of your employees that are in the vulnerable groups.” 


7. Socialise virtually

Businesses use socials as a way for staff to interact outside of work hours and to boost morale, and it’s possible to do this remotely as well.

Connection is always important, but especially during this time of crisis and uncertainty. And, not only is loneliness one of the biggest issues with working remotely, it’s particularly pertinent now that we’re all being told to stay at home.

Fortunately, the same messaging and video conferencing tools used for managing remote team productivity and output during the working day can be used out of hours too. For example, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Zoom can all be used to run a virtual social. 

A popular social for remote workers is a pizza party, whereby pizza is delivered to team members at the same time a great idea for a lunchtime event!


Summary

Managing remote teams can be complicated, especially in the long term. Yet if you remain focused on what you want your business to accomplish, and the ways in which to do this, you can develop a remote culture that aligns with your company’s values and conforms to governmental guidance.

Take steps to ensure that your employees are safe and healthy. Maintain clear communication channels, and continue to operate as your business usually would within this new context.

You may not have envisaged yourself leading remote teams, particularly in such a short timeframe, but the way many of us work has already evolved rapidly in a matter of days. Our tips can help you sustain the switch to running a virtual business.

If you want to learn more about supporting remote staff, read our articles on:

Scarlett Cook
Scarlett Cook

Scarlett writes about a wide range of topics on the site, from business security to digital marketing and EPOS systems. She can also be found writing about diversity and sustainability in business, as well as managing the Just Started profiles.