Here’s how companies can help employees working remotely in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

Barbara Larson, executive professor of marketing in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, studies the effects of working remotely. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, more and more companies are requiring their employees to work from home or work remotely. And while technological advances have made remote work faster and more accessible (multinational companies no longer need to rely upon fax machines to send information back and forth), there are still potential obstacles for which managers should account, says Northeastern professor Barbara Larson.

Barbara Larson, executive professor of management in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, studies the effects of working remotely. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Larson is an executive professor of management at Northeastern whose recent research has focused on the nuances of remote work. She also was the international finance director of a company that had several subsidiaries in China during the country’s SARS outbreak in the early 2000s—so she has personal experience with the decisions many company executives are now grappling with.

“To me, this is very familiar, and it comes down to mitigating risk,” she says. “Obviously your employees’ health and safety and wellbeing should come first.”

Requiring employees to work remotely, as companies including Amazon, Facebook, and Google (among others) have done, does bring about some logistical challenges though. Larson says these challenges fall into two broad categories: task-oriented and social.

One of the biggest task-oriented challenges is how to communicate and share information when employees are no longer convened in the same office, Larson says.

“What people don’t necessarily realize until they go remote is how much they’ve relied upon being able to walk down the hall and ask a quick question, or lean over a partition to compare notes,” she says.

A related task-oriented challenge is how best to enable employees to collaborate in real-time, Larson says.

In both cases, setting up systems well in advance is the key to success, she says. Instant messaging platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Zoom, that allow employees to chat with each other almost instantly are one way to work around these challenges; document-sharing platforms such as Dropbox, Microsoft Teams, and Google services are another.

But working from home also creates a social challenge. It separates people from their coworkers (for companies trying to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, this is the goal)—a shift that can create a sense of isolation for some people, Larson says.

“For a lot of people, it can be emotionally taxing because you’re not getting the interaction with coworkers that you normally do,” she says. “Although, for people who are more introverted, this can be a dream.”

To mitigate the sense of isolation, some companies that have a large population of remote workers—often tech companies in which people can easily work on a computer from anywhere—will schedule “virtual pizza parties,” Larson says. The company will have pizza delivered to its remote employees, and everyone will join a video call, to simulate the experience of an in-person gathering.

It’s important for companies to build in time for the type of conversations that people organically have at work—but that aren’t about work, Larson says.

“At work, you’ll talk to your coworkers about their plans for the weekend, catch up on how their kids are doing—when you’re waiting to join a conference call and your phone is on mute, those conversations just don’t happen as much,” she says. “You can end up feeling like a cog in a machine.”

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