How to Enable Remote Work During the Coronavirus Outbreak


Working remotely has been on the rise for years, with the number of people telecommuting in the U.S. increasing 159% between 2005 and 2017. Once considered an employee perk, research conducted by flexible workspace provider, IWG, revealed that a whopping 74% of U.S. workers believe that remote work has become the “new normal.” Not only does it help employers attract and retain top talent in today’s competitive labor market, but it can also be especially beneficial when a health threat like coronavirus strikes. Here are some things to consider when preparing to not only respond to this imminent health threat but also to use it as an opportunity to rethink your organization’s remote work policy.

Benefits of Remote Work

The IWG research revealed that in the past ten years, 83% of businesses have introduced a flexible work policy, or are planning to adopt one. “Remote work has grown steadily since 2005, as companies of all types—private, public, nonprofit, or startup—continue to recognize the bottom-line benefits of integrating remote work into their business strategies,” said Sara Sutton, founder, and CEO of FlexJobs. “With improvements to technology and increasing demands from employees in a tight labor market, we fully expect to see the momentum around this important workplace continue to grow,” Sutton concluded. The benefits of flexible working for both the employer and the employee are many, including:

Attracting and Retaining Talent

A majority of businesses believe that offering flexible working enables them to expand their talent pool and improve retention. More than a third of employees that were part of the IWG study said that the ability to work remotely was so important, they would prioritize it over having a more impressive job title. Part of the reason for this is that more and more workers are placing a high value on work-life balance. In fact, 22% of employees leave jobs as a result of work-life balance issues, so it has a significant impact on your ability to retain talent.

Elevating Productivity

Flexibility not only gives employees greater work-life balance—it makes them more productive. According to the IWG survey, 85% of businesses reported productivity increases because of greater employee flexibility. What’s more, 63% of those surveyed reported at least a 21% improvement in productivity because of flexible working policies. One fascinating two-year Stanford study showed an astounding productivity boost among remote workers equivalent to a full day’s work! In addition, employee attrition decreased by 50% among those working remotely. They had fewer sick days, took shorter breaks, and took less vacation time. And don’t forget the reduced carbon emissions from having fewer automobiles on the road. Here are some additional statistics compiled by Global Workplace Analytics for major companies around the globe:

  • AT&T found its telecommuters worked five more hours a week at home than its office workers.
  • JD Edwards remote workers were shown to be 20-25% more productive than their office colleagues.
  • American Express employees who worked from home were 43% more productive than workers in the office.
  • Telecommuters at Compaq, Best Buy, British Telecom, and Dow Chemical have all shown to be as much as 45% more productive.

Increasing Agility and Cost Savings

In these unpredictable times, it’s clear that businesses are prioritizing agility and cost efficiencies. Of the businesses surveyed for the IWG study, 59% said they are looking to be more agile. With a third of those companies looking to expand internationally, the majority said that they chose remote working because it accelerates speed to market in new countries. Also, 70% of the companies surveyed adopted flexible working to help them scale. Nearly six out of ten employers also identify cost savings as a significant benefit to telecommuting. Dell reports saving approximately $12 million per year in real estate costs by encouraging employees to work from home. Similarly, IBM slashed real estate costs by $50 million.  According to Global Workplace Analytics, if a typical business allowed employees to work from home just half the time, they would save, on average, $11,000 per year.

The Coronavirus Impact

The coronavirus outbreak has impacted corporations in a big way. “The crisis is a very, very big challenge to the society,” Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang told investors on a recent earnings call, but it also gives people a “chance to try a new way of living and new way of work.” IBM, which nearly three years ago discontinued remote working for many U.S. employees, recently asked employees in coronavirus-affected areas to work from home wherever possible. Goldman Sachs restricted business travel to South Korea, as well as regions of Italy, and required that nonessential trips to other parts of Asia and Italy be postponed. Siemens is recommending employees replace nonessential travel to affected areas with phone calls or video conferences. At the same time, Coca-Cola asked office workers in China, Singapore, South Korea, and Italy to work from home. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other agencies, urged businesses to plan for how to limit the virus’s impact, including remote work. While many professional workplaces have flexible work arrangements for employees and are equipped with laptops, smartphones, and software tools—many others do not. This begs the question: is your organization prepared to implement remote work on a broad basis if and when a crisis strikes?

How To Enable Remote Work

Plan for the Unexpected

The only way to be ready for any kind of crisis is to prepare in advance. Put a crisis plan in place that assumes the only way to remain operational is to have as many employees as possible working remotely. Assemble a cross-functional team that includes leaders from IT, HR, communications, and facilities and start to plan for different scenarios. Optimize execution, should circumstances require a quick response. If an unexpected crisis occurs, and the team is working remotely, make sure there is a way to connect with everyone quickly. If you aren’t already permitting your team to work remotely, start practicing now. This trial will provide insights into weak areas or pain points before you get to the point where you have everyone working remotely for a period. As you ease your way into flexible working, it will be easier to determine the systems and procedures you need to put into place.

Establish Ground Rules

Enabling remote work means establishing core standards. Consider which positions can work effectively without being physically present in the office. Challenge previous assumptions and be ready to experiment. You may be surprised at how many traditional roles can transition to flexible working arrangements. Also, establish remote work policies, so it is clear to employees what the boundaries are. For example, can employees work some of the time or 100% of the time remotely?  How often should teams get together in person, and when they’re not in person, how will teams communicate effectively?

Prepare Infrastructure

Working remotely can have an impact on your company’s infrastructure. For example, when people work from home, it may be more taxing on your servers. Make sure they can handle the extra traffic load from outside sources. As part of your preparation plans, contract with platforms that specialize in online collaboration. Consider investing in an online project management tool so your team can continue to work on projects together. Assess the comfort level your employees have with specific applications, such as video conferencing and other communication platforms. Where you find gaps, provide training, and practice opportunities before people need to use them. Identify devices owned by the organization that staff can use and clarify acceptable “bring your own” phone and laptop options. Determine if there are any security issues to consider and how best to address them beforehand.

Measure performance

After the flexible response period is over, the data will allow you to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Depending on the results, you may decide to continue certain aspects of the flexible response permanently. For example, perhaps you cut business travel by 25% and substituted video conferencing. If you determine afterward that 90% of those meetings were equally as effective virtually, remote work may be an excellent way to reduce the expense of business travel while cutting down on carbon emissions.

Create a Trust Culture

Your remote work structure must reflect a level of trust in your employees. Working remotely requires letting go of a measure of control since you can’t see what everyone is doing all the time. Rather than managing based on time or hours in the office, manage to work outputs. As long as your employees can meet deadlines, demonstrate their impact, and complete projects on-time, it’s irrelevant when and where they get their work done. You hired your team for a reason, and now it’s time to empower them to succeed.

They say, hope for the best and plan for the worst. Do you have a remote work plan in place should a crisis arrive on your doorstep? Given the massive scale of the coronavirus epidemic and the impact it is having on companies globally, this is the perfect time for every business to evaluate (or create) an effective emergency remote work plan. While flexible work arrangements are here to stay, the coronavirus may force many companies to make the transition more quickly than expected. By following these recommendations, you will be better prepared not only for a global crisis but also for the future of work, which is—you guessed it—remote.