The business world is probably not going back to ‘normal’ after this pandemic. But that’s not necessarily bad.
Savvy business leaders can make the best of this terrible situation by using it as an opportunity to build a strong remote workforce and come out ahead in the post-pandemic landscape.
In fact, there is an existing trend toward remote working that pre-dates the virus by almost a decade.
Known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the rise of connected machines, AI, and smart manufacturing is driving a revolution in the way we work.
What is Industry 4.0?
The three previous industrial revolutions were:
- Steam in the 1700s
- Electricity in the 1800s
- Digital computers in the 1900s
Throughout these historical revolutions, one thing has remained the same: new technologies have served to ease the burden of labor for existing job roles.
The technological advances of the past have led to workers performing their tasks faster, more efficiently, and with fewer errors.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (also known as Industry 4.0 or 4IR) is different.
Industry 4.0 brings with it a change not only in the ease of work, but in the nature, timing, and location of that work. Workers in smart factories – a typical example of an Industry 4.0 workplace – must be trained in a very different set of skills from traditional manufacturing workers.
The modern workforce of smart manufacturing, rather than performing manual tasks, is responsible for programming and supervising machines that perform those tasks.
For over a decade, the changing nature of work in Industry 4.0 has caused a strong movement toward remote working as employees no longer need to be physically present in an office or factory floor to perform their duties.
The New Normal
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become the new normal overnight. But COVID-19 is a catalyst for the shift to remote working, not the cause.
The COVID-19 disease has infected over half a million people worldwide, and most experts predict it will continue to spread faster for the foreseeable future. With the penetration of the virus growing each day, governments around the world are taking more drastic steps to slow its spread.
The impact of this pandemic on the global economy has already been tremendous, and it, too, will continue to grow.
The first visible sign of change has been an overnight switch to remote working for vast numbers of people as companies scramble to play their part in slowing the virus.
But this rapid switch to remote working is only an acceleration of a change that was already quietly happening in leading companies.
This article will look at some of the important things to consider as managers rapidly adapt to a remote workforce.
Creating an Effective Remote-Work Policy
The pandemic is creating an immediate need for remote working, but that doesn’t mean that companies should prioritize speed over quality in their preparations for this new style of management.
Establishing a clear and comprehensive remote-working policy is the first step to ensuring success.
By taking the time and effort to write a good policy for home-based workers, and making sure to train all staff in how to follow that policy properly, businesses will be in a better position to emerge healthy from the current crisis and move forward into the broader landscape of Industry 4.0.
So, what comprises an effective remote-working policy?
Managing from a distance should not cause communication to suffer.
Working remotely means that the forced face-to-face contact of an office setting no longer provides a baseline of daily interaction between managers and staff.
To avoid the risk of interrupting communication and lowered employee engagement, managers need to implement strong policies ensuring regular and effective check-ins.
Some key things to include in a remote working communications policy:
- Schedule intentionally and avoid last-minute meetings
- Establish a response-time policy for emails and other asynchronous communications
- Require regularly schedule and well-structured progress updates from all team members
- Appoint a leader for every remote meeting
- Stick to planned timeframes for all face-to-face communications
Keep in mind, though, that distractions at home may require asynchronous communications.
A good communications policy for remote workers strikes a balance between flexibility and discipline.
Lack of face-to-face supervision can cause challenges for managers when it comes to maintaining productivity.
It can also leave employees feeling unsupported by management and their fellow team members.
The most important thing to remember in establishing remote working policies is that they need to be mutually beneficial. Workers must be confident their managers are being held to a high standard just as much as managers need to maintain control over employees.
With many distractions like family, housework, and Netflix, maintaining focus on the job can be a challenge when working from home.
Flexible scheduling often leads to more productive remote working, but it can also be difficult for those new to working from home.
As employees transition into remote roles for the first time, they are unlikely to possess advanced time-management and self-supervision skills. Without the ambient pressure of co-workers sitting in the next cubicle and bosses down the hall, it may be challenging for some to maintain their productivity and quality of work.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, some of the most common difficulties cited by employees new to remote working are:
- Lack of face-to-face supervision
- Difficulty communicating with team members and managers
- Social isolation and staying motivated
Providing employees with structured timelines and productivity requirements for their work will help to alleviate these issues.
Maintaining Productivity for Teams Working From Home
Perhaps the biggest mistake managers make when transitioning to a remote workforce is trying to maintain the same communication and scheduling style they use in the office.
When employees are working from home, they may not always be able to pick up the phone or make themselves available on short notice for a videoconference.
Implementing structured asynchronous communications is an excellent way to keep workers focused without requiring too much rigidity in their schedule.
Try to schedule meetings on a regular recurring basis at least a week ahead of time. Use Google Docs or a CRM to keep teams on the same page without needing constant face-to-face interaction.
There are also tons of software solutions available to help companies with asynchronous communications.
- Trello for managing tasks and to-do lists.
- Slack for team communications.
- Toggl for time management and reporting.
In remote working environments, the support role of managers is more critical
Industry 4.0 management strategies often focus on support and guidance more than direct supervision.
No amount of supervision will make a worker more committed to their job, but just the right amount of genuine support and encouragement at the right moment can inspire an employee to flourish.
When working with a remote team, the ability of managers to directly supervise work is limited at best. Thus, trust and support are the foundation of successfully managing teams working from home.
Research shows that self-directed learning and work styles are often the most productive and efficient.
Allowing employees to “pull” what they need from managers, rather than managers “pushing” requirements and rigid protocols enables each employee to find a self-directed path to completing their objectives.
Providing training and resources at the moment of need
Working from home or not, the rapid evolution of today’s job roles makes practical training a top priority for companies in Industry 4.0.
In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, skills training may not be the first thing on a manager’s mind. But continued training is one of the most crucial components of a successful work-from-home experience.
While there has been a lot of buzz in the past about massively open online courses (MOOCs), effective training for a remote workforce requires a targeted and self-directed format that MOOCs are unable to implement. Some concepts to look for in a good 4IR training platform are:
- Training at the moment of need
- Just-in-Time Training
- Self-directed learning paths
- Modular microlearning
These are much more than buzzwords or jargon. These are research-based tenets of training that together form the pillars of effective online training programs.
Security is a significant concern for any business with a remote workforce.
When employees take their work home, it becomes more challenging to monitor adherence to policies and guidelines for computer use and communications.
Remote workers often use their home computers, share devices with family and friends, and engage in risky behaviors without realizing it. Creating a firm security policy and making a concerted effort to educate all employees about how to follow that policy is critical to maintaining a secure remote working environment.
Cisco conducted a survey of over 1,000 remote workers to determine how secure their work-from-home habits were.
- Online shopping
- Using non-secure wireless connections
- Sharing computers with family and friends
- Using personal devices to access company resources
The Cisco survey found that employees care about security and understand its importance, but they don’t always understand how their behaviors are undermining it.
Knowing that security is essential doesn’t help if you don’t understand how to work securely.
Companies with remote employees must create a comprehensive security policy that includes guidelines on all infrastructure and resources for those working at home.
The policy itself is useless if workers don’t understand it, so implementing an effective training protocol is equally essential.
Planning for the Long-Haul
The end of the Coronavirus crisis will not necessarily mean everyone goes back to the office.
Experts agree that the COVID-19 pandemic will be with us for a while, but the changes it is bringing will be with us permanently.
Indeed, as damaging as the pandemic has been to industries around the world, it also presents an opportunity for businesses to pivot to the new normal of remote working.
Managers who are already savvy to the rise of remote working in 4IR are at an advantage in this crisis. But everyone stands to benefit from it in the long-term if they seize the opportunity for change that it presents.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has the potential to catalyze a healthier and more efficient remote workforce.