By Anna Taylor, principal consultant, and Anna Lane, senior business consultant at Entec Si

In response to Government guidance for businesses during the coronavirus crisis, many employers have introduced remote working arrangements. As well as safeguarding their workforce, a flexible working setup can help organisations to maintain continuity and avoid any negative impacts on their bottom line.

However, with uncertainty around how long the situation will continue, it is essential that home working processes are designed for the long-haul; not only to guarantee that the wellbeing of the workforce is put first, but also to ensure that employee productivity and engagement do not take a hit.

While many businesses have implemented flexible working arrangements in recent years, many of these processes were not designed for the scale of disruption caused by COVID-19. The pandemic is requiring organisations of all sizes and sectors to rapidly put remote working measures in place, or overhaul their existing setup. With a careful consideration of how business changes impact the organisations’ people, processes, systems and infrastructure, companies can continue reaping the rewards of improved flexibility even after the coronavirus situation comes to an end.

To ensure home working arrangements are long-lasting, it is important to ensure that employees are both practically and mentally prepared for life away from the office. When time allows, issuing workplace assessment questionnaires to gauge whether employees feel ready for the transition, and clearly communicating how the new setup will work, is a good place to start. To ensure employees feel supported at every stage of the change journey, businesses should also consider appointing dedicated ‘flexible working champions’ – key points of contact for those with queries or concerns related to remote working changes.

Another vital step is to check that employees have access to a suitable home working environment, containing the right tools and technologies to do their job. While investing in hardware such as laptops and cloud-based software may require some initial expenditure, it is worth weighing this up against the potential cost to the business if people are unable to achieve their objectives. It would also be incorrect to assume that everyone switching to home working will suddenly be able to use the range of online tools required to do their job. Tools used to aid collaboration can be multifunctional and much more than just video conferencing on demand, requiring training and guidance. If not addressed this can impact employee performance.

One of the key challenges businesses are likely to face when remote working over a prolonged period is the need to maintain a close company culture. Without finding creative ways to keep employees connected and bringing a human element into their processes, companies risk workers feeling isolated and out of the loop. The breakdown of an organisation’s team dynamic could lead to a dip in motivation levels and threaten effective collaboration between different areas of the business.

In order to maintain workforce morale, business leaders should implement a comprehensive communications approach, making use of a range of different channels. For example, while companies might use platforms such as Whatsapp for informal conversations throughout the day, this channel would not be appropriate for more formal communications, such as a business-wide update on coronavirus contingency plans. To avoid people becoming burnt out, organisations should also adopt a strong focus on workforce wellbeing, including encouraging staff to regularly step away from their desks.

While employers should set clear remote working policies and KPIs for individual staff members, it is important to remember that the coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented situation and will affect people in different ways. For example, some employees may be juggling work around childcare commitments and the need to care for ill or elderly parents. As such, it is important to check in with individuals regularly to offer support and consider introducing flexible working hours. Shifting the focus away from a ‘nine to five’ mentality to a more accommodating approach based around individual employee outputs is key here; wherever possible employers should demonstrate trust in workers to maintain an effective work-life balance and manage their own workloads.

At what is already an uncertain time for business leaders, a lack of knowledge around how to effectively manage business changes linked to remote working can be an additional cause for concern. As such, close collaboration with specialists with experience of helping businesses to prepare rapid work from home strategies, and improve their existing processes, has never been more valuable.

A sudden switch to remote working effectively requires a company’s culture to be rebuilt from the ground upwards and without careful planning, the upheaval could have a negative impact on business continuity. By preparing the workforce to go the distance and getting the right expert advice at an early stage, business leaders can remain in control throughout the crisis and organisations will become increasingly flexible and efficient.