Last month I wrote that the coming widespread rollout of 5G would change the way we work this year, and I still believe that's true. What I didn't account for at the time, however, is that there's another variable likely to force many of us to make those changes much sooner than we may have thought.
That's because as the current outbreak of Covid-19 approaches a global pandemic, companies are going to be faced with some difficult choices. In countries like China, where the virus originated, workplaces have already shut down in an effort to limit or slow the transmission of the disease. Apple, for example, has closed most of its stores in the country, and already announced that its quarterly revenue will fall short of its previous estimates due to a limit in supply resulting from shuttered factories.
In reality, the question is no longer "if," but "when?" For example, this Twitter thread includes a range of expert opinions that we're past that point.
Round up of (assistant) profs of infectious disease spread saying we're likely past being able to contain coronavirus, i.e. headed for a pandemic and mitigation (NOT saying containment efforts are now pointless): @mlipsitch https://t.co/mP76jHPmGT-- Chris Wymant (@ChrisWymant) February 23, 2020
Still, that doesn't mean it's time to panic. It means it's time to prepare.
For many companies, preparation means putting a structure in place to enable your team to continue working, even if we get to a point where they can't come to the office for a period of time.
In fact, a company that I work for experienced that very challenge last summer, though not as a result of any viral outbreak. Most of our team is already remote, but for three weeks in June, all 170 employees were working remotely. Here are a few of the things our company learned that you can use to prepare your team:
Start Practicing Now
If you aren't already allowing your team the flexibility to work remotely, start now. It'll be far easier to work out the systems and processes you need to put into place if you ease your way into remote work. It's hard to know exactly where the pain points will be until you suddenly realize that your regularly-scheduled team meeting won't be happening in person and you scramble to figure out how to get everyone together.
Start practicing now by letting people work from home as their schedule and workload allow. This will give you insight into the areas you need to strengthen before you get to the point where you're looking at having everyone work remotely for a period of time.
Agree on Objectives
Making a change that involves sending your entire team home will no doubt be disruptive. You can minimize that disruption by setting firm objectives around the types of work that is required to keep things moving forward. It's important to recognize that those objectives may be different than they were when your team was in an office together. Instead, focus on the priorities that will empower your team to be productive in any environment.
Put the Right Tools in Place
One of the benefits of technology is that it can help keep your team connected even when they aren't in the same physical location. This is especially important when it comes to collaborating and communicating across teams. Tools like Zoom and Slack don't replace face-to-face communication but they can help you develop a structure for staying engaged even as you work from home.
You'll also want to think through the specific tools or devices your team will need. Will you provide them with a laptop and a smartphone, or are they expected to bring their own device? Either way, your preparation should include thinking this through and making sure your team has what it needs to keep working.
Trust Your People
The bottom line is that your structure has to reflect a level of trust in your people. Working remotely inherently requires letting go of a measure of control since you can't see what everyone is doing all the time. By the way, that's a good thing. If you find yourself anxious at the idea that your team will be working outside of your watchful eye, start by taking a deep breath. It's going to be OK. You hired this team for a reason, and now it's time to empower them to succeed.