COVID-19 has led to significant change in most people’s personal and working life. Due to social distancing and office closures encouraged by both the UK and the Swedish government, teams who are used to working together in offices have now been left with no choice but to work remotely.

Many are new to the situation, both managers and employees. Previous ways of working are being disrupted by the lack of natural interaction, putting pressure on finding new ways of communicating, monitoring and motivating employees, and measuring performance.

To advise managers and employers in what they need to consider in order to ensure an effective running of their business during these critical and unusual times, Goodwille co-hosted a webinar on 23 April together with the British-Swedish Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm. HR Manager Jacqui Brown, Goodwille, along with HR Advisor Anna Kuklinska, Goodwille, held a one hour session with the attendees, including an informative presentation and interactive Q&A.

Technology Infrastructure – What Are the Basics of Working Remotely?

After opening remarks were made by Christina Liljeström, Secretary General at the BSCC, it was time to get down to the basics of working remotely. The physical practicalities of working from home need to be in place before even considering to bring your employees out of their ordinary workplace. A working laptop might be an obvious one, but do they need additional screens, a mouse, or noise cancelling headphones in order to keep distractions to a minimum? Phones for international phone calls is another tool which might be necessary, which raises the question of who should pay for it.

With hardware comes software – and there are some great ones out there to help with the transition from office based to remote! Videoconferencing tools like Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom and Google Hangouts can make this transition easier and fill the human interaction gap. It is advised to not only use them professionally, but to recreate social gatherings in a virtual setting.

Security in terms of protecting both your employees, your company’s and clients data needs to be taken into consideration. Especially with fairly new regulatory policies such as GDPR, you need to ensure your compatibility. A comprehensive and integrated information protections strategy is therefore key, and a VPN might have to be put in place. Discuss with your IT department and make sure their services are accessible for everyone!

Health & Safety in the Remote Workplace – What are your employer responsibilities?

As an employer, you have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other workers. Ideally, you should be able to carry out a risk assessment on your homeworkers. It may not be possible for the employer to carry out a risk assessment – but the employee can. As a manager, you should provide the employee with the right tools to do so.

Insurance is another thing that must be considered before allowing your employees to work from home. Employers should check whether the company’ insurance policy for employer’s liability and personal accident operate in the same way as when office-based, and if the company’s equipment is covered.

It is important to mention employees also have to take reasonable care of their own health and safety. Employees working from home should inform their manager about any risks, or the need of changes to homeworking arrangements, including work hours or targets.

On the softer side – How to Recognise Mental Health Issues Among Employees

After sorting out the practicalities of working from home, Anna Kuklinska continued to speak about employee care – what issues in connection to wellbeing employees might experience when working from home, as well as how employers can monitor and tackle them.

The current situation, with sudden change in work patterns, economic uncertainties, social distancing, and so on, can cause a number of mental health issues for employees. As an employer you have a ‘duty of care’ towards your employees, meaning you must take reasonable steps in relation to their health, safety, and wellbeing, which also extends to mental health.

So how do you spot signs of mental health illness or vulnerability among your employees? There are a number of factors, among these changes in work habits, physical appearance and personality, as well as increased absenteeism and outbursts/mood swings.

Parents and lone workers – how to manage?

Due to school closures and social distancing, a group who might find it even more difficult to adjust to the remote ways of working are parents. They might feel distracted, unmotivated, inadequate and stressed when worklife and personal life inevitably blends together. Therefore, it becomes crucial to provide flexible working arrangements, such as working hours, and as a manager you should encourage an honest and open dialogue with the team.

There will always be a greater risk for lone workers with no direct supervision. Managers should put procedures in place to ensure regular contact, ensuring employee health and safety. If contact is poor, workers may feel disconnected, isolated or abandoned, which can affect stress levels and mental health. It is also important to have an emergency point of contact updated and on file, so make sure your data is accessible and secure.

Workplace Communication During COVID-19

Emphasising on communication in your workplace is the key to managing your workers effectively. Employees need regular contact; however, it is even more important in times of crisis. Transparency is key – it is crucial to keep employees informed of the current business situation and be transparent on what challenges the company might face.

Employees need guidance and support on how effectively working from home. It is important to build up a healthy relationship of trust and confidence. Try to use video calls rather than phone calls if possible, which reduces possible feelings of alienation. Also, stay positive – even though the situation is challenging, remember to sometimes also deliver positive news, and encourage your staff to emphasise on the positive aspects of their current situation. Encourage working proactively rather than reactively, give recognition, and if you do have scope, fit in exciting projects and development opportunities.

Leadership communication is also critical. If you are a manager, discuss with your teams how you should run supervision, check-ins, and sign offs remotely. Let people know how and when to contact you and make sure that everyone working from home knows what is expected of them.

How to Manage Productivity, Conduct & Performance

If you’re lucky enough to have a business functioning remotely, there are still conduct and performance related issues which can arise when managing them remotely. For example, social distancing measures and working from home risks your employees feeling isolated. This can, in turn, lead to poor engagement and poor productivity, which is bad news for any employer.

Productivity doesn’t necessarily have to be measured by time spent, but keep in mind the flexible working arrangements that might need to be put in place for some employees. Instead, you should set clear targets to work towards and invite employees to discuss targets, and in applicable cases – outline why they have not been met.

Use technology to talk to your employees about issues and to manage performance or conduct matters. But – beware of excessive chit chat, rise of interpersonal issues and inappropriate conversations which the use of software such as Slack, Teams and Skype can cause.

It is still possible to implement a performance management routine remotely, where technology plays an important part. You can also still hold formal meetings to investigate a disciplinary matter, and to carry out a disciplinary process if necessary. We are entering a new world where it is likely that remote working will be normalised and we need to become used to operating like this.

Bullying & Harassment in the Remote Workplace

Just because your team no longer works face to face, doesn’t mean cases of bullying or discrimination are eliminated. An employer’s liability for the conduct of their employees is not waived simply because a victim is working from home. Bullying and harassment can occur using remote channels such as chat rooms, e-mails and phones. The act doesn’t have to be aimed directly to the victim, but for example, it could be seen as fostering an “intimidating, hostile degrading, humiliating or offensive environment” for a senior employee to neglect to copy a colleague into emails or invite them to an online meeting.

When it comes to bullying and harassment, employers need to reflect upon their own behaviour. Micromanaging certain employees can be seen as victimisation or discrimination. How you monitor and assess your employees work will be taken into account, but also your reaction to, for example, a reduction in activity or working hours amongst employees. Built-in biases of who is subject to such actions should be considered, for example – do some people assume women are more likely to be caring for dependants than men? Here, it is important to have your standardised procedures in place.

Some employees might postpone complaints to a time when this crisis is resolved due to fear of employment loss. Therefore, it is important to implement measures, policies and practices to protect your business against a wave of potential cases of bullying and harassment.

Your questions answered – Remote Workforce Management

During the Q&A, attendees shared their own remote working experiences. When asked about what the major points that should be changed for managers when moving to remote working, Jacqui shared here personal experience as a HR manager: “I think for me the biggest changes is the communication aspect, and making sure you’re still keeping human contact with your team members as a manager. There is still a potential issue with productivity and managing that side, and sometimes that can be perceived as being more difficult to do from a remote working perspective”. Anna emphasized on managing expectations – the importance of conversating with employees about your reality, what employees need to achieve, and to form established procedures.

How about differences across boarders – are some countries’ workforce better at adapting to remote working? Jacqui again: “Certainly in some countries, remote or flexible working seems to be more the norm, and I think that to a certain degree the UK is catching up. So maybe we are a little bit behind the curve and learning how to make this the new norm”.