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As remote work tools deploy, next task is behavioral

The coronavirus could provide a major incentive to work remotely. The shift may have long-lasting impacts, as managers and employees get comfortable with virtual work.

The new coronavirus is prompting companies to test and develop policies that ensure employees can be productive while working from home. This shift to remote work often falls to IT and HR departments, according to experts.

Federal and state officials are urging businesses to prepare for flexible work arrangements. Businesses are either announcing new remote work policies or acknowledging efforts to enable telework.

For example, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., a $29 billion mutual life insurance company based in Springfield, Mass., "is taking steps to address the potential impacts of the coronavirus on company employees and business operations," said Laura Crisco, head of media relations at the firm.

This includes "ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including encouraging them to proactively test their work-from-home capabilities," Crisco said. "We have been in continuous communication with our employees and will continue to monitor the coronavirus situation closely."

Workday Inc. said last week it is increasing use of its virtual technologies. In a blog post, Twitter said it is "strongly encouraging all employees globally to work from home if they're able." IBM, reportedly, is also allowing some telecommuting. Oracle, when asked, said it isn't commenting on its plans.

Remote work tips for HR

The role of HR in supporting the transition to remote work is to establish rules, policies and suggestions about how to behave, according to experts.

Lisa Walker, workforce futurist at Fuze Inc., a cloud unified communications provider, said HR's job is "to write the policies and work on the communications around what is expected of people in this new world." The guidelines should be clear and emphasize building trust that work is being done, she said.

HR's guidelines should include when employees are expected to work, and address questions like, "What does it mean for me to be online during those hours?" Walker said. "Am I expected to take meetings? How responsive am I supposed to be?"

Walker said there also needs to be uniformity of remote work tools. "If you want to get work done across the company in a telecommuting scenario, you have to have a common set of tools being used for the day-to-day work getting done," she said.

The most important thing remote workers can do to build trust is acknowledge a message has been received, said Judith Olson, a retired professor of information and computer science at the University of California at Irvine. Olson has researched remote working. 

"All you have to say is, 'Got it,'" Olson said, and that will go a long way in keeping mistrust from building.

Another good practice is to make video meetings a place for collaboration and virtual interaction, Olson said. Allowing people to log into a meeting before it starts and encouraging them to stay after to communicate can provide employees time to chat and connect, she said.

Some employees may experience hurdles in their transition to remote work. A problem that often pops up for people working from home is a lack of bandwidth. Workers may also configure remote work tools incorrectly or use applications that are incompatible with third parties, said Daniel Newman, principal analyst and founding partner of Futurum Research. Meetings can also be delayed because a participant doesn't have the right drivers, he said.

"Timeliness can be a problem -- getting people on these calls on time from all these different places," Newman said. "People may have trouble sharing documents, there may be background noise on the line and some may be connecting from their cars," he said.

"There's just a lot of small problems that typically are not as significant when you're all in a room together," Newman said of remote work tool use.

Long-term implications

People are starting to think about the long-term implications the coronavirus outbreak may have on remote work.

Governments in Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Korea, have been ordering or encouraging employees to work from home to slow the spread of the virus, according to CBRE Group Inc., a Los Angeles-based business real estate firm, in a just-released research report.

There remain concerns among employers over productivity and collaboration among remote workers, CBRE said in its report, but "this large scale trial may encourage companies to be more willing to accelerate the adoption of flexible and home working policies in the future."

Situations such as this global epidemic that foster telecommuting often make businesses more comfortable with it, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics in San Diego.

One significant example of this is the 2016 earthquake that hit New Zealand, which kept government workers out of their offices for more than six months. "Telework saved them from a government shutdown," Lister said.  The government has since made telecommuting a mainstream part of their operations, she said.

Some firms, mostly outside of the U.S., see remote work as an easy way to reduce their carbon footprint, Lister said.

More recently, before the coronavirus, firms began offering the option of remote work to improve their ability to compete in the labor market, Lister said. "It sort of opens their eyes to the opportunities," she said.

About 5% of the U.S. workforce works from home half-time or more, but Lister believes that may rise as a long-term consequence of the coronavirus. Remote work is "a lot easier when you've already done it, and you have already got all the systems and protocols in place," she said. 

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