Working from home isn’t a new concept. Many employees have been doing it for years while some offer remote training programs. It can allow greater flexibility and lead to happier staff. Working from home arrangements can even save companies money.
According to Global Workplace Analytics, work from home has increased by 173% since 2005. That amounts to 11% faster growth than the entire workforce, which increased by 15% in that time. The 2016 Gallup State of the American Workplace report found that 43% of employees worked remotely often.
Employers who allow work from home arrangements can save an average of $11,000 per half-time remote employee. This comes from an increase in productivity and a decrease in absenteeism, turnover, and real estate expenses.
Today, workers around the world have another reason to stay home. The coronavirus has spread rapidly, forcing many companies to shut down and switch to remote-only operation. While some are prepared for the change, many are not. This has led to a forced work from home experiment that could make or break some businesses.
Loneliness and Full-Time Work from Home
Work from home has many benefits, so it seems like doing it would be a benefit to all companies and employees. The reality is that there are challenges that a full-time remote workforce faces that can hinder success and affect mental states.
A 2016 paper titled “Does Working From Home Work?” outlined the progress of a team of economists at Ctrip. Ctrip is a Chinese travel agency that consists of 16,000 employees. The experiment started with a small group of call center staff that was randomly assigned to work from home.
The first results were very positive. Workers were happy, quit less, and had greater job satisfaction. The employer saved over $1,000 per employee by reducing its office space. The concept looked promising, so Ctrip decided to roll it out company-wide.
Despite the great initial results, this proved to be a bad idea. The two biggest losses came in the form of creativity and companionship. Workers didn’t have as much opportunity to speak face to face and spark inspiration and ideas through a verbal exchange. Some also began to experience feelings of loneliness. The social bonds were broken, which had a detrimental effect across the organization.
Another issue with online communication lies in text chat. Things like sarcasm and humor don’t always translate well when there’s no tone, body language, or eye contact involved. A message that might have been interpreted as funny or harmless in person may be read as mean spirited or sarcastic in text.
Employees who feel slighted or attacked are going to have a harder time working with their peers.
These issues do not bode well for companies who are now forced to follow the same experiment that Ctrip did – but this time with no option to bring people back into the office.
The good news is that many eLearning platforms have features or support third party tools that expand communication options. While text chat and email feature heavily, those aren’t the only ways that people can interact remotely.
Companies need to make sure that they fully utilize all the tools available to ensure clear communication among staff. Managers and supervisors need to be aware of these potential problems and nurture a positive environment, even if they don’t share the same space with their workers.
It’s also important to check in with employees and ensure that everyone is in a good headspace as we collectively navigate the changes that coronavirus is forcing us into.
How to Build Social Presence While Maintaining Social Distance
Social distancing is the term used by public health officials to help stop or slow the spread of coronavirus. The idea is that we must restrict contact with other people and stay a safe distance away. For example, everyone is advised to avoid gathering in large groups and remain at least six feet apart from the people around you, which can be very difficult in a work setting.
All of this is counterintuitive to the need for social interaction that some workers feel. There are ways to build social presence while adhering to the recommended social distancing.
- Use Cameras for Face to Face Discussions – Distance is no longer a limiting factor when you want to have a face to face conversation with someone. Use cameras for meetings or one-on-one discussions. Managers or supervisors can still discuss projects or review employees as though they were in the same room.
Seeing another person, making eye contact, and feeling “normal” will help stave off feelings of loneliness and isolation. Many eLearning platforms offer webinar features or integration with video chat apps.
- Encourage the Use of Social Platforms – Encourage employees to use social platforms to stay in touch. If your company uses Yammer, Slacker, or a similar platform, remind everyone that it’s there.
Email and other chat apps can also work. If you don’t currently have an app in place, now is the time to get started. The crisis is expected to last a while, so every business needs to be set up to nurture interactions despite the distance.
- Increase Frequency of Communication – Keep your workers, partners, and clients informed. Depending on how often you were communicating before, it might be beneficial to increase frequency. People feel more comfortable and content when they know what’s going on.
- Replace Conferences with Webinars – If you had to cancel conferences or other meetups because of coronavirus, consider switching to an online gathering. Webinars are a great alternative. You can still convey the information you want and create a sense of togetherness with the audience. Companies can also arrange group seminars online for smaller gatherings. Webinar capability is a common find on many LMS platforms.
- Remind Supervisors to Remain Available – Remind all supervisors and managers that they should remain available and responsive to the needs of their staff. Even if they were available before, it is helpful to reiterate their availability and how to get in touch.
Employees should feel comfortable coming to their supervisors with questions or concerns, especially during the pandemic.
- Share Tips and Ideas for Better Mental Health – Share tips and ideas that can help employees manage long-term work from home situations. Maintaining a schedule, staying on top of personal hygiene despite not leaving home, and getting enough exercise are all beneficial.
If you don’t have a company newsletter, consider starting one as an easy way to share ideas and encourage positivity in your workforce.
A Work from Home Future
It is impossible to say how long our situation will remain this way. Slowing the infection and staying healthy is the highest priority right now. Coronavirus was confirmed in all 50 U.S. states with the current death toll over 100 for our country. We have no choice but to make changes to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
That most likely means that work from home is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. And when the time comes to return to work, things may look very different than they once did.
Working remotely can make employees more productive and increase job satisfaction, however, the circumstances during a pandemic are different. Businesses need to be ready to navigate this new world and help workers ease into the changes.
Organizations that don’t have a solid infrastructure setup for remote workers should get started right away. Visit LMS.org to learn more about online training and platforms that offer communication tools that help teams stay connected while social distancing.