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Remote Workforce Management in 2020

Posted by on April 16, 2020

Remote Workforce Management

Remote workforce management is a major challenge for business leaders during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The trend toward remote work began in the mid-1980s and has grown steadily up to the present day—but while some organizations have encouraged employees to work from home, many are simply not prepared with the support, process, and infrastructure necessary to manage a remote workforce effectively.

In this blog post, we provide context for how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting remote workforce management for organizations of all sizes. We’ll also outline the benefits and challenges of remote workforce management for both managers and remote workers. Finally, we’ll offer our best practices for remote workforce management from three perspectives: business, IT, and human resources.

Mobile Workforce Management Trends Before COVID-19

The trend toward remote work (as we understand it today) has been steadily growing for decades. The effect of COVID-19 has been to dramatically accelerate this trend in an extremely short period of time, forcing companies of all sizes to adapt quickly to the self-isolation measures being recommended by government around the world.

The first personal computer was invented in 1975, allowing some employees in technical roles to work remotely. When the Internet was commercialized in 1983, remote work opportunities expanded even more. Now, call center employees, administrative staff, writers, data entry clerks, and more could all work from home. By 1987, over 1.5 million Americans had telecommuting jobs.

Remote work continued to grow in the 1990s, with innovations like Wi-Fi, and the first co-working spaces created new location options for remote employees. By the year 2000, United States executive agencies were establishing remote work management policies for federal workers, and by 2004, many federal employees were permitted to work from home.

Remote work has grown by 173 percent since 2005, according to research conducted by Global Workplace Analytics using data from the 2018 United States Census. Gallup’s 2017 State of the Workplace report found that 43 percent of employees worked remotely at least sometimes, up from 39 percent of employees in 2012. A 2019 survey from the International Workplace Group found that over 50 percent of employees spend at least 50 percent of their time working remotely. A 2019 survey from Owl Labs found that 62 percent of employees worked remotely at least some of the time while 38 percent were dedicated on-site employees.

Mobile Workforce Management Trends with COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic, we’ve seen an unprecedented shift toward remote work. According to a Gartner poll of global HR executives, 88 percent of organizations have asked workers to telecommute while self-isolating at home.

In mere weeks, flexible work policies have gone from nice-to-have to necessity.

Giant international companies—including Google, Twitter, Spotify, Apple, and countless others—have transitioned employees from working in offices to working remotely. We’re seeing this exact situation play out across all industries and sectors, with huge numbers of employees being asked to work from home and IT, HR, and management leaders scrambling to support staff through the transition.

As the COVID-19 situation unfolds, remote workforce management may become the new normal for many of these organizations—at least for the foreseeable future.

What Are the Benefits of Managing a Remote Workforce?

Managing a remote workforce can provide significant benefits for managers, employees, and the entire business organization.

While some of these benefits have been available for decades, many organizations have resisted transitioning to remote work strategy for a variety of reasons. Now that remote work is becoming a necessity, many employees around the world and their managers will have the opportunity to benefit from remote work for the first time.

Remote Workforce Benefits for Employees

In the 2019 State of Remote Work report published by Buffer, researchers asked survey respondents to identify the single greatest benefit they associated with working remotely:

Buffer Survey on Benefits of Working Remotely

Employees reported a variety of benefits, including the ability to work on a flexible schedule, to spend more time with family, and to vary their work location.

The unifying theme behind these benefits appears to be work-life balance—when workers are given the freedom to work remotely, they have an easier time negotiating the balance between work and other priorities in life. The desire for flexible work is so strong, that 80 percent of workers in the United States said they would decline a job offer that did not include flexible work.

A survey conducted by Amerisleep discovered that remote workers were 57 percent more likely to be satisfied with their job than the average American, and that 80 percent of remote workers experience less work-related stress. One major finding of Owl Labs’ 2019 survey is that 80 percent of all employees believe that they would be less stressed by working from home. Another survey done by FlexJobs revealed that most remote workers are more productive at home than at the office, thanks to fewer distractions and a personalized environment.

The economics of working remotely can also benefit employees. One analysis found that telecommuters could save between $2,000 and $7,000 annually by working from home. That includes all the gas, time, mileage, and vehicle wear-and-tear associated with commuting to work each day.

Remote Workforce Benefits for Managers and Employers

While employees enjoy remote working benefits like more family time and a flexible scheduling, the benefits for managers and employers are equally compelling:

  1. Cost Savings – Businesses bear direct costs that are associated with having employees at the workplace, including costs for real estate, electricity, and office supplies. Rate of employee turnover and absenteeism are also usually lower for remote workers. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that businesses can save up to $11,000 annually per employee by switching to a remote workforce.
  2. Productivity - Remote workers are more productive. A survey from Owl Labs found that 53 percent of remote workers put in more than their required 40 hours per week, compared to just 28 percent of in-office workers. Remote workers can often get more tasks done due to fewer distractions.
  3. Talent Attraction & Retention – Owl Labs asked over 1200 survey respondents to identify their top three most-valued perks and benefits when evaluating an employment opportunity. Among respondents, 68 percent identified flexibility in workplace location and 60 percent identified flexibility in work schedule as major factors when choosing an employer.

In addition to the business benefits of remote workforce management, there are also environmental benefits. More remote workers mean fewer commuters, which means fewer vehicles on the road, less frustrating traffic, reduced carbon emissions, and even cleaner air.

What Are the Challenges of Managing a Remote Workforce?

In the face of COVID-19, businesses and their employees are struggling to overcome new challenges associated with working from home.

Many businesses already have a fair number of people who work from home at least occasionally. Most of these businesses already have processes in place for remote workforce management. The major challenge will be to scale those processes quickly and efficiently to accommodate much higher volumes of remote workers without interrupting services.

Owl Labs asked business managers about the biggest challenges and concerns they had with respect to remote workforce management. Among the most common responses were reduced employee productivity, reduced employee focus, and reduced employee engagement and satisfaction. Managers were reported to be least concerned with employee loneliness, the impact of remote work on employee career progression, and difficulty managing employees.

On the employee side, businesses will have many of their employees working from home for the first time. These employees are facing technical, practical, and emotional challenges of their own. The State of Remote Report 2019 asked respondents about their biggest struggles with working remotely:

Buffer survey on struggles with working remotely

These results resonate with many of the anecdotes we’ve heard in the last couple of weeks with respect to how organizations are managing the transition to remote workforce management. Many employees are struggling to stay motivated outside of the familiar office environment and dealing with emotional hurdles like loneliness at home. Some employees have spouses or other family members working from home, or even kids to look after—they may be struggling to manage productivity amidst these other distractions. Collaboration and communication are typical issues for geographically separated teams.

In the final section of this guide, we will highlight some best practices for remote workforce management that will help business, IT, and HR managers overcome both manager and worker challenges during COVID-19.

Remote Workforce Management: Best Practices

Best Practices for IT Managers

  1. Provisioning devices for remote workers – the first major challenge that IT organizations will face is the need to rapidly deploy hardware devices for remote workers. Laptops and mobile phones used by remote employees must connect securely with company systems to enable remote work while protecting sensitive company data. A large volume of workers transitioning at the same time means a high volume of service requests for IT. Cherwell’s IT Service Management software can help IT organizations manage and automate service request workflows at times of excessive volume.
  2. Providing communication & collaboration tools – one in six remote workers identified collaboration and communication as their biggest challenge when telecommuting. IT organizations should collaborate with the business to license and support technologies that facilitate audio and video communication & collaboration between geographically separated teams. Programs like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Slack, and Zoom allow workers to share documents and communicate with instant messaging, VoIP, or video chat functionality.
  3. Facilitating self-service – IT organizations should anticipate the technical issues associated with remote work and home office configuration and create self-service resources to help remote workers resolve these issues on their own before logging a ticket. Self-service is the most cost-effective way to resolve IT issues, and a robust self-service portal is the best way to help users address and resolve their issues before involving IT resources.
  4. Dedicated solutions – Cherwell’s Remote Employee Management mApp is a solution for managing remote employees. This dedicated solution helps businesses streamline and automate critical workflows, including device requests and provisioning, as well as maintaining a consistent flow of updates and communication to remote employees.
  5. Multi-channel support – remote workers will benefit significantly from an IT service desk that offers a multi-channel support experience. Users should have a variety of ways to communicate with IT, including:
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Live Chat
  • Service Portal
  • Virtual Agent
  • Office Collaboration Tool (MS Teams, Slack, etc.)

Best Practices for Business Managers

  1. Structuring goals and accountability – as organizations transition to a remote work force, employees are going to encounter issues with productivity and motivation as they adjust to the new environment and expectations. Some workers are accustomed to being supervised and may struggle to self-regulate without their colleagues and bosses to keep them in line. To maintain high productivity levels, managers need to ensure that remote workers are held to the same level of accountability as when they were in-office. One-on-one meetings and check-ins need to be more frequent with remote workers, and at least one discussion per week should focus on project progress, goal setting, and accountability for results.
  2. Encouraging peer interaction and collaboration – while 19 percent of remote workers reported that loneliness was the hardest part of working from home, the same factor was reported as the lowest area of concerns for managers of remote workers. This represents a huge disconnect between remote workers and their managers that needs to be rectified. Managers need to encourage, facilitate, and support communication and collaboration among team members, including non-business interactions like having lunch together on Microsoft Teams. Remote workers should be encouraged to make the most of the available collaboration tools that make interactions feel more personal and to include other team members in meetings and social time.
  3. Planning for no-agenda meetings – in addition to planned goal setting, managers should set aside time for no-agenda meetings with each remote worker they manage. Many employees are experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty because of the coronavirus outbreak. Managers who empathize well can use this time to build rapport with their staff and offer strategies to reduce anxiety and be more productive (such as limiting social media). Managers can also use this time to ensure that team members are adjusting well to remote work and being included in meetings and decision-making by other team members. 
  4. Focusing on the customer – even when employees are transitioning to remote work and adjusting to working from home, the customer’s expectations remain the same. Organizations must remain customer-focused and committed to providing the same levels of service, even if there are huge behind-the-scenes changes happening. Managers need to ensure that their team members are consistently and predictably available to collaborate on customer projects and attend meetings. Managers need to ensure that remote workers are proactive about updating their calendars and out-of-office notifications to reflect their status during work hours.
  5. Making sense of changes – for most employees of the business, their manager is the first point of contact for questions or concerns related to remote working or the COVID-19 pandemic. Managers should play a role in helping their team members make sense of the pandemic, including sharing information from reliable sources and helping identify disinformation that may be encountered by team members. A daily or weekly briefing on what is changing and how your organization is responding shows genuine leadership and helps team members feel at ease.

Best Practices for HR Managers

  1. Deliver regular news and status updates – human resources can play a central role in facilitating a unified organizational response and adaption to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the primary functions of HR is to maintain a steady flow of communication between leadership and employees. If you receive the same question or concern from more than two people, include the answer in a daily newsletter and keep everyone informed about new developments.
  2. Connect remote workers with information & resources – as workers make the switch to the home office, HR is going to be receiving a lot more information requests. Employees will be trying to figure out technology, determining out what they can expense, looking up contact information for other people in other departments, and so on. To cope with the additional demand, most HR departments operate a virtual library or HR knowledge management portal where employees can look up answers to most of their questions.
  3. Be prepared to manage service requests – some workplaces have asked employees to take vacation days during the pandemic, so there may be additional requests for vacation time. Some of your employees may even be sick with COVID-19, so there may be additional inquiries about benefits and health insurance coverage. Remote workers may also have concerns about lay-offs as the situation continues to unfold. HR departments should have in place a formalized system and workflow for managing service requests.
  4. Review onboarding and offboarding processes – when organizations undergo large-scale change, it’s the newest employees who are at risk of being left behind. HR departments should review their onboarding processes and modify them to ensure that any employees who were previously in the middle of training or onboarding can still get the training and support they need while working remotely.
  5. Promote employee wellness – remote working is not the only change caused by coronavirus. People have stopped going to the gym and they are not leaving their houses to see friends and family. These changes can pose a risk to the physical and mental health of employees, but HR can play a major role in keeping staff members on track with their wellness goals.

Here are a few initiatives we can recommend:

  • Send a daily email with health tips or include a health tip as part of a daily newsletter for remote workers.
  • Keep workers informed about any wellness programs or services that your company offers or provides.
  • Encourage remote workers to communicate with their colleagues on a regular basis to stave off feelings of isolation.
  • Remind remote workers about the importance of maintaining daily routines of self-care, healthy eating, and exercise. Provide them with tips or advice about how to establish new routines if theirs have been disrupted by COVID-19.

Summary

We are now in the middle of the largest ever remote work experiment. Although there are significant challenges associated with remote workforce management, there are also huge benefits for organizations that can provide the technological and practical supports necessary for remote workers.

At Cherwell, we build software that helps our enterprise clients efficiently manage and deliver services to remote workers. With our Enterprise Service Management platform, organizations can streamline and automate workflows for HR and IT service requests, making it easier to effectively support business needs even with high request volumes.

We hope that these best practices can help your team adapt to the changing paradigm of work while our public health professionals work to contain COVID-19. Until then, remember to keep six feet apart, wash your hands and don’t touch your face! For more even more practical guidance, download our ITSM Handbook for Remote Workforce Enablement

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