Working from home is not new for me — in fact, it’s something I’m used to. Besides spending years as a freelancer and a contract worker for several publications, I worked for nearly 10 years at an organization where the main office (and most of the employees) were in the Boston area. Since I live in New York City, that meant I worked almost exclusively via phone, email, and chat. It also meant that I found out how isolating working from home could feel.
While some of what I experienced doesn’t pertain to the current situation, I thought what I learned during that time might be useful for companies that are scrambling to keep their employees working with as little practical and emotional disruption as possible (considering the situation).
Make sure everyone has adequate tech
When I first started working remotely, video conferencing software like Zoom was a lot less efficient and a lot more expensive. As a result, I sat through countless audio-only meetings where I quickly lost track of who was speaking or couldn’t hear what somebody was saying at all. And when in-person conversations got intense, people would tend to forget that remote employees were still at the other end of the call. When that happened, it was as if I wasn’t a full employee.
These days, because of better apps — and because, at many companies, everybody is working remotely — that’s not as much of an issue. But if your company does not normally accommodate meetings with remote participants, I would urge you to immediately start using a decent video conferencing tool. Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts are three places to start if you’re a small company looking for something quick and freely available.
Good software tools won’t help if your worker has lousy hardware. If employees are using personal equipment (whether that’s computers or phones) to join meetings, make sure their tech is up to date enough to allow them to fully participate in online meetings. If they constantly drop out because of an old computer or phone with a bad mic or because they have slow home internet, then see if you can get them the equipment they need, even on a temporary basis.
And if you’ve got IT people at your company who are now sitting at home, make sure they are available for chat and / or phone consultations. Equally important is that they know how to patiently talk less-knowledgeable people through audio and visual difficulties.
Use a chat app
Slack or Microsoft Teams or whatever instant chat service you use is your friend. Not only does it ensure that workers can stay up to date with all of the business that they need to take care of, but it’s vital for the kind of social conversations that most workplaces are full of, which are no longer happening in person. Let there be at least one channel on your chat app for discussions about personal stuff, funny things that happened, or concerns about the news.
You also want to use your chat app to make sure that everyone is up on the latest company news. What precautions are being taken at the workplace (assuming there are still people working there)? Where can they go if they have questions or emergencies? How is HR handling sick leave? Who can they contact if there are any ordinary questions that may come up in the meantime?
And don’t forget your freelancers and contract workers. People who regularly work with you but are normally not part of the daily business conversation are going to be especially isolated. If there is a way to make them part of the conversation (perhaps by giving them limited access to the chat app), that would be a good thing to do.
Make sure everyone is included in business and social events
This may not be as much of an issue in the current pandemic while most people are working remotely, but it still holds.
In meetings, make sure that all participants are, well, participating. Some people, especially those who are not used to working remotely, may at first be uncomfortable in video conferences, and so they may hang back.
Don’t force people to appear on camera if they don’t want to. While video meetings tend to work better when you feel as though you are talking to a real person, if a participant feels awkward being on camera (or is worried about how messy their house is), then they’re going to spend the meeting too distracted to pay full attention to the matters at hand.
If you or your employees decide to hold a virtual get-together, Twitch gaming session, video watch party, or other social event, make sure everyone in the company is aware of it and invited. Of course, you can have separate events for teams within the company, but it’s not a good idea to further isolate employees whose jobs may not usually involve working with others.
And if people continue to work at home over several weeks, make sure the social events are varied so that everyone can become involved in at least one or two. You don’t want to further isolate workers who may already feel somewhat set apart because of ethnicity or other aspects of identity, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, or age. Asking for suggestions (rather than simply assuming what you like is what they like) can help.
These are anxious times, and it’s hard enough for many people to concentrate on their jobs. Making sure that everyone feels involved and wanted at their workplace can go a long way toward keeping a company going.