Companies in Europe and around the world are facing major challenges due to the measures taken to contain the Corona virus pandemic, which forced many companies to close their doors. When employees are forced to work from home, organisations need to figure out how to stay engaged and functional in a fully digital mode. This applies not only to the current crisis, but also to companies that are increasingly switching to decentralised work and mobile workforces in the face of digitisation.

Together with our client and Talent Management expert SumTotal we have summarised 6 recommendations for team leaders and workforce managers who are faced with this situation.

Compared to Europe as a whole, Germany and the wider DACH region have been on the fence for some time when it comes to remote working. According to the Federal Statistical Office[i], only around 11 percent of the German workforce works from home regularly or sometimes. In the Netherlands and Norway, on the other hand, this applies to almost 40 percent. In the UK 25 in in Austria 22 and in France over 20 percent work regularly or sometimes from home. Due to the current social distancing measures in the fight against Covid-19, these numbers are rising rapidly. According to a recent survey by the digital association Bitkom, one in two German professional (49 percent) currently work entirely or at least partially in their home office[ii]. While many companies have already laid the foundations for digital remote working through advancing digitalisation and new work models, this is a completely new situation for other companies. There are some employees who are only now experiencing working at home for the first time, after more than 30 years of their working life. It is especially important for companies and managers who have suddenly had to change their teams and employees to a completely new way of working, to take the following recommendations into consideration.

Transparency and regular communication

When an employee is isolated in a crisis, it doesn’t take long for panic to ensue about personal and job security, or for rumours among colleagues to spread. If you’ve quarantined teams for safety reasons, be very clear about your company’s policies and plan for managing the crisis. Even if there is no final strategy, you should communicate that management is working on it and what the first steps might be. Relay recommendations from authorities and the rationale behind your decision, communicate what you’re doing to keep the company moving, and importantly, how employees can contribute to the continued success of the company through ongoing commitment and by managing their personal safety. Update this information and inform employees as soon any changes occur.

Personal contact – even from a distance

Establishing effective daily communication with a decentralised workforce is essential. This applies not only to crisis scenarios, but also if your team consists mainly of external staff who rarely come to the office. E-mail alone won’t suffice. Use multiple channels to communicate, particularly work chat platforms that are more casual and personal, encouraging greater connection between employees. You can also schedule regular personal meetings of your teams via video conference. The interaction and mutual engagement help making remote employees feel involved and responsible.

It’s also important to offer support to employees in crisis from the outset to show you truly care. Contact individual employees to assess how they are personally affected. If necessary, offer the opportunity to talk, be it through the HR department or by video conference with a consultant.

Respect boundaries

However, it is also important that the boundaries between work and leisure do not completely disappear just because the employees are not working in a regulated office. Get in touch during normal working hours, don’t expect late night responses. Keep in mind that many people with kids might also be experiencing school shut-downs and not have anyone to look after the children, so be flexible and thoughtful of individual circumstances. Rules for boundaries also apply to employees. Encourage them to work in a structured manner in the home office and to take breaks and stick to working hours. Even if flexible work is an important advantage of new work models, numerous studies show that structure and a certain separation of work and leisure are very important in order to be able to work productively.[iii]

Think outside the box

Many companies, especially if they depend on physical supply chains or personal customer contact, are currently exposed to major business risks. But there are also positive examples of companies that are changing their business models and offering products and services in new ways. For example, several German textile companies have spontaneously converted their factories to produce face masks, not only to help with the shortage in the Covit-19 crisis, but also to prevent short-time work and layoffs. Organisations also find new paths in the area of ​​customer advice and service. Financial or insurance advisors are switching from face-to-face meetings to video conferences, because many customers are now looking for advice on how to deal with loss of earnings. IT providers are working overtime to equip customers with cloud IT infrastructures for decentralised work. Even gyms offer online courses that allow their members to stay fit at home and in order to maintain their clientele. Talk to customers and brainstorm with your employees about how you can continue to offer your customers added value and support.

Employee development as an opportunity in a crisis

L&D and employee development are more important than ever in times of crisis. This becomes apparent when, for example, new technologies are used to work remotely. Although there are many employees who are already familiar with tools for remote work, there are also companies where home office and the corresponding technical equipment have so far been the exception. Regardless of whether it is the current exceptional situation due to Covid-19 or a different change of business processes: what initially presents itself as a challenge in which one has to adjust to new tools and processes can also be an opportunity for personal as well for organisational development.

Digital HR, HCM and learning platforms make learning possible from home offices or any other place. They also show which employees would be suitable for upskilling or reskilling if the crisis situation or a general change in the company means that some tasks or roles are no longer available and new positions are created elsewhere. In some cases, this makes it necessary to acquire new qualifications. But also employees who “just” lack physical guidance in their role will feel inspired and supported by being encouraged to explore a new skill from home to maintain their personal growth and ability to work autonomously.

Employee motivation via digital tools

Digital tools are also great for maintaining a sense of community when working remotely. This is particularly important in crises to balance out a feeling of isolation. Modern HR and HCM solutions offer numerous options to provide employees with digital rewards for special engagement, outstanding performances or the acquisition of new qualifications and to make this visible throughout the team. But digital birthday cards, toasting to a success in a video team meeting or team competitions – with corresponding rewards – are helpful for motivating a digital remote workforce community.

“Shifting to a remote working model is a significant challenge, particularly for large companies that don’t usually operate this way”, concludes talent management expert Doris Niederwieser from SumTotal Systems. “Not only the utilisation of modern technical tools, but also the right leadership skills that provide support and empathy are critical for companies to stay functional and to meet the challenges they are facing.”