Continued telecommuting once offices are again open after COVID-19 restrictions sounds appealing, but is it right for your small business? That depends on the business. Recent data obtained by the United States Bureau of Labor and Industries suggests that “63% of U.S. jobs require significant onsite presence.” This means that if your business is primarily service-oriented (retail, hospitality, trade-related, etc.), long-term telecommuting might not be possible for a significant portion of your workforce.
Fortunately, the remaining 37% of jobs are fairly remote-friendly. If your business provides professional services or employs people in administrative roles, for example, permanent telecommuting is a very viable option. The key is to make it not only work for your business, but work well for your business.
In recognition of this year’s Telecommuter Appreciation Week (March 1st through March 7th—the holiday is celebrated the first week in March to coincide with the March 3rd birthday of Alexander Graham Bell) here are six ways to make telecommuting better for your small business.
Establish a remote work policy
Before you send everyone home with a laptop computer and permission to work in pajamas, it is absolutely critical to create a set of telecommuting guidelines so that everyone is on the same page, says Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, a remote work consulting firm.
The policy, she says, is a mutual agreement between employer and employee, spelling out exactly what needs to happen in order to make telecommuting successful. While policies are customized to each individual business, they typically include things like communication expectations, work hours/meeting attendance, the type of office supplies and equipment to have on hand, and where to turn for help with technical difficulties. The policy also provides an opportunity to address subjects like work-life balance, sick leave, and the intersection of parenting and telecommuting (right now, Zoom meeting interruptions by mischievous toddlers are par for the course—but in the future, it may be reasonable to require childcare during work hours).
Is the policy something you just sit down and write on your own? No, says Farrer—it is imperative that you solicit suggestions and feedback from your telecommuting team members, since they have a vested interest in making sure the policy is practical and sustainable.
Avoid micromanaging remote workers
When your employees are telecommuting, resist the urge to watch them work on a webcam in order to make sure they aren’t taking too many breaks and scrolling Instagram while on the clock. Likewise, don’t require them to check in with you multiple times a day or to fill out lengthy status reports.
“Micromanaging is only going to decrease the productivity metrics, and it is going to create a toxic culture,” says Farrer.
Instead, focus on results, she says. Give them projects with deadlines—and the autonomy to meet those deadlines. Let them know when they need to provide an update (once a day is fine), and allow them to ask for feedback or assistance when and if they need it. You are still monitoring productivity, but in a non-imposing and supportive manner.
Incorporate team building activities
Socializing in the break room is an important part of office culture, and obviously that goes away if everyone is working from home. But camaraderie is still important, says Farrer, even if everyone is telecommuting.
“If you can’t talk about puppies, you can’t talk about profit margins,” Farrer says, explaining that the ability to discuss low-pressure topics makes way for more effective communication when it comes to high-pressure topics.
She recommends dedicating the first 10 minutes of team Zoom meetings to small talk or, if you use tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, creating “just for fun” channels where employees can share favorite recipes, talk about their weekend plans or discuss the books they are reading (for example). You can even host virtual games like trivia or bingo over Zoom, or have a team picnic at a local park (when/if outdoor group events are safe in your area).
“You are giving people an opportunity to be people, and not just workers,” Farrer says.
Standardize tech tools for all telecommuters
Speaking of Zoom and Slack, if your team is remote it is absolutely essential that all team members use the same software and the same web-based tools for the same purpose, says Farrer. This means that you actually need to tell your employees what to install and/or download, and provide it to them if necessary. Do you have to go out and buy the latest and greatest software package available to your industry? Definitely not—many businesses function just fine by using email and other basic tools. However, your team won’t be productive if team members aren’t all using tech tools in a cohesive manner. Even if some employees experience a learning curve at the start, your whole team will benefit in the long run.
Furthermore, be aware that as a business owner it is up to you to supply remote employees with the tools they need to do their job. So, if you decide to require high-speed internet or a particular printer, be prepared to foot the bill. Despite the cost, this will make telecommuting better for your business overall because a) everyone will be able to work efficiently and b) the employees working from home will feel valued (because they are equipped, literally, to succeed).
Prioritize mental health
Despite all the benefits of telecommuting, there are a few downsides. For your employees, one of the big ones is the stress related to social isolation (not to mention burnout—research indicates that remote employees have always worked a lot, and nowadays they are putting in more hours than ever).
As a small business owner, you can make telecommuting better for your small business by recognizing the importance of mental health and encouraging your employees to engage in self-care, says Melissa Smith, a remote work consultant and CEO of the Association of Virtual Assistants. She recommends offering perks to your telecommuters, like online yoga classes or subscriptions to relaxation apps.
Offering a mental health day now and then, especially on a Friday or a Monday, is another great way to encourage balance. Showing your appreciation also makes an impact, Smith says. For example, you can provide gift cards for dinner if your employees are working late, or send a bouquet of flowers just to say “thank you.” These gestures, Smith explains, let your remote workers know that you see them, even if you don’t see them.
Recognize the difference between “pandemic remote” and “regular remote”
Finally, it is important to understand that telecommuting in response to Covid-19 is somewhat different than telecommuting under normal circumstances, says Farrer.
“What is happening now is not remote work,” she says. “What is happening right now is an international contingency plan for a global catastrophe.”
What does this mean for your small business going forward? It means that at some point, the things that have made telecommuting difficult in recent months (like trying to help kids with schoolwork while simultaneously preparing an important presentation) will cease to exist. This will allow you, a small business owner, to really hone in on the tactics that are best for your small business and your people. The result? A successful and productive remote workforce.