Public health officials in King County, Washington, are recommending that employers in the county, which includes Seattle, allow their employees to work from home. In a statement issued on the King County public health blog, those officials also recommended that employers maximize telecommuting options, stagger work times and encouraging the use of sick leave.
Two of King County’s biggest employers, Amazon and Microsoft, also announced that they would ask their employees to work from home where possible. In addition, Amazon has asked employees to cut business travel where possible.
I think a lot of companies are really going to struggle with this increased need for collaboration
However, telling companies to simply have their employees work from home is easier said than done. Not every company has the resources, the training or even the bandwidth to support an en masse move to remote work. In addition, for many companies a move to working at home requires a significant shift in their corporate culture, something that may be even harder to accomplish than any physical requirements.
Making the move
Some companies make working from home a standard part of their experience. They have everything in place for employees to work from nearly anywhere, and they have the management and HR structure in place to support it. But that’s not the case everywhere.
For large-scale remote working, which includes working from home, to be practicable, there are several conditions that must exist:
· The infrastructure for remote working, including laptop computers for every employee expected to work remotely, must be in place.
· The software to support remote work and collaboration must be in place and the software must be licensed. The software must be installed on each computer, and the computer needs to be configured to work properly with it.
· Your employees need to be trained to use the hardware and software.
· Your employees must have enough bandwidth, meaning high-speed internet access, where they’re expected to work. You can’t just hope your staff will try to work from Starbucks or McDonalds.
· There needs to be some kind of IT support for remote workers, especially since a lot of them won’t have done this before.
· The management structure must accept the fact that remote employees are still working, something that’s not always easy to do.
“I think a lot of companies are really going to struggle with this increased need for collaboration,” said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. “It’s not just about WebEx and screen sharing.”
Gold said that many employees will find it difficult to get used to multi-user video conferences, for example.
“It increases network traffic dramatically,” Gold said. He noted that companies may not have the licenses they need for collaboration.
The major collaboration software companies started seeing large increases in the use of their products as quarantines started in China. Cisco said use of its WebEx was growing exponentially daily. Because of the demand for their software by workers who were quarantined or otherwise needed to work at home during the spread of COVID-19, Cisco and other companies began providing free business licenses during the crisis.
The list includes Cisco WebEx, which is offering free unlimited usage for up to 100 users, and includes a free 90-day license to new customers. Google is offering its existing G Suite customers access to Hangouts Meet with some advanced features until July. LogMeIn is providing free Emergency Remote Work Kits to current customers for 90 days.
If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. Many small and midsized companies don’t have the expertise to plan for a major event such as a requirement to allow employees to work from home, and they don’t have the capability to make the required changes even if they knew what they were. For this, you can turn to companies such as Sungard Availability Services which can provide the necessary help planning and managing what could otherwise be an impending disaster.
Sungard’s head of North America consulting, Charles Iannuzzelli, said that they can help companies beginning with planning and simulations to see how prepared they are for an emergency, such as a work-at-home requirement. “How do they think of having part of their workforce work remotely?” he asked.
Iannuzzelli said that such planning must include working with strategic partners, making sure they have stockpiles of products of components in case of problems in their supply chain and even employee scheduling.
“They need to ensure they have solid communications through internal and customer communities,” he added.
“We’re helping work through what happens if a larger part of their work force has to work remotely,” he explained, “do they the equipment including enough laptops or desktops, and can they create that environment?”
“What we’re advising the client on is to identify the essential employees, ensure they can work from home and not overload the network. We’re advising them to test that and actually send employees home.”
Iannuzzelli said that companies can handle workforce challenges by using remote locations that the company already has available, or even to find remote locations in an unaffected area, something that Sungard already can do for other types of disasters. He also said that testing your plan is critical. “Do some incident management exercises. Take some time and rehearse. Put some stress on the organization to see where the impact could occur.”
In some ways you can look at your company’s response to the staffing challenges caused by COVID-19 as being like other disasters, with the difference being that you know in advance that it’s coming, and you have the ability to prepare. But you still need to confirm that your plans will actually work.