Millions across the globe are suddenly working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The current crisis caught many employers without a solid plan to manage teleworkers, and left employees new to working from home uncertain about how they should manage their time.

Following are some tips for employers that are new to telework, to better manage work-from-home employees.

An increase in teleworking is a good thing- usually

green workingWork-from-home strategies can help businesses bottom line, now and in non-crisis times. Telecommuting is an effective way to maximize a work force at a lower cost. The need for a centralized office is minimized, as are related expenses like utilities. Telecommuting is better for the environment too. Since COVID-19 has forced people to stay at home/work at home, the earth is benefiting with cleaner air and water. If we continue to advocate for telework, it will be much easier to reach reduced carbon emission goals by taking a significant number of cars off the road.

But the key challenge remains: managing productivity, especially in light of obvious home distractions like the TV, couch, internet and family or roommate interruptions.  Here are the main areas employers should consider when setting up and managing a telework program.

1. Ensure employees have tools to work from home

The types of jobs that can be done from home typically involve a computer, phone and an internet connection.

telework toolsMany employees are willing to use their own phone, laptop or home desktop, at least to start, but there are still issues to be worked through. An employee may not have the same software at home as at a business location. If a company has cloud-based tools to access resources, such as Amazon Workspace, this is as simple as the employee downloading an app and logging in from home. Otherwise basic software needs can be solved with cloud access to a Microsoft Office package, starting at $5 per user per month for the Business Essentials package, which also includes services like MS Teams for online meetings.

Although a Microsoft Office package for business comes with built in security, it is recommended that the teleworker’s home system is also protected from viruses and malware that could seep into business files. One excellent security service is Malwarebytes, which is $39 per user per year.

An advantage to using a cloud-based system for creating and storing documents is that companies control access. Files are kept separate from an employee’s home documents. Should an employee leave or get laid off, their access to cloud-based software and documents is immediately terminated as well.

File sharing can also be accomplished for free with Google Docs and Google Drive, but the content control remains with the person sharing.

Business owners may need to fill in gaps if an employee does not have a home computer. Creating an annual technology fund, where telecommuting employees can receive financial support to buy or replace phones, equipment and other tools used for work once a year, is an increasingly common perk.

2. Establish a schedule

telework calendarSome jobs are project oriented, meaning as long as the worker meets established deadlines for projects, they can complete tasks at any time. However, if an employee had a set schedule in an office environment, you can create the same parameters at home with a set of simple policies.

If an employee’s schedule is 8am to 4pm, they are expected to be at work at home at 8am through 4pm. One of the best ways to have people check in is by logging into an instant messaging program tied to your software package or cloud-based computing tools. You can see when an employee is working and they can see who else is working and available. Everyone in the group is instantly available to answer questions or provide input. Instant messaging is less intrusive to work flow than jumping on a call or video conference.

Using a calendar for each employee, with visibility shared to the company, supervisor and pertinent team members, is also a good idea. The teleworker must post their schedule on the calendar, and block out appointments or other time away from their home office.

3. Make a workplan

telecommute workplanThe COVID-19 crisis spread rapidly, leaving many companies with an immediate reduction of business, resulting in layoffs. It is critical that team members have goals and objectives, and are clear on what their responsibilities are when working at home, especially if their responsibilities have shifted.

Project management software helps managers delegate tasks and teams collaborate. Here are five to choose from that have a free option for small teams, and the ability to scale up for larger groups or more features: Asana, Toggl Plan, Freedcamp, Wrike or ClickUp. When setting up online projects, be clear on expectations and layout project parameters in painstaking detail. This will increase accountability.

If your company is still rearranging responsibilities, there are tasks that many employees can do to productively fill their time. These include cross training, learning new features of company software, following up on tasks or projects that they previously didn’t have time to work on, contributing to company social media about positive work in progress, reviewing the tasks of their department (if a manager) and developing more productive workflows, or soliciting quotes from new vendors to reduce expenses.

4. Continue to meet as a group- online

online meetingWorking from home can be isolating. Bringing small groups together can expand the knowledge base to work through a problem. Just seeing each other humanizes our work, which can be a comfort in uncertain times. If your normal pattern in the office is to have a weekly meeting, use video services to include home-based workers. They will have the benefit of hearing news and directions on new projects face-to-face, and ask questions, rather than one-way communication in email.

Larger companies likely have video conferencing built into cloud-based tools. However, there are plenty of options for smaller teams. Two of my favorites are Zoom which is free for up to 100 participants but meetings are limited to 40 minutes, or Uber Conference– free for up to 10 participants for 45 minutes. The owner of Uber Conference has extended the free plan to 50 participants and a longer meeting time for the next two months to help out those affected by COVID-19. Both have affordable paid options for longer meetings.

There is also the old standby, Skype, which is free to use for up to 20 employees. With software originally built for video calls, Skype does not have as of a slick user interface as other options that were designed for video conferencing.

If you or another leader is hosting a video meeting, it is quick and easy to create an outline of your notes in a PowerPoint presentation, then share your screen as you discuss projects, goals and objectives. Record the meeting and keep it in a shared file for anyone who missed the meeting, and for accountability of those present.

5. Schedule regular check-ins

online collaborationAnother key to accountability is to make sure your employees know you are monitoring their progress. Video conferencing is also great for one-on-one meetings to check in on specific goals.

If an employee is on the clock and cannot be reached online, or is not completing tasks, that is an indication of a problem. Productivity can be better monitored with more check-ins on less disciplined workers and consequences for failure to execute on expectations.

Make sure you are available too. Do not always ignore instant messages or calls from a remote team member, even if you are busy. in the middle of something. After all, it they were knocking on your office door, you would likely address their question immediately. Keep connected to your telecommuting team members the same way.

6. Encourage collaboration

instant messagingIt is far easier to procrastinate when working alone. When teams work toward a common goal, members force accountability for others to do their part.

Take collaboration one step further and set a goal for the entire team to meet together. Did your business have a ton of appointment cancellations due to COVID-19? See who can reschedule the most appointments to a later date, rather than losing the revenue off your books entirely. Use your online project management tools so team members can see not only their own goals, but what others are working on.

Using Instant Messaging or group chats allows your staff to share ideas and work together as a team.

7. Remember the human element

telecommute excercisedEncourage work-at-home employees to stay healthy by taking breaks during the day- and not just to the refrigerator. Teleworkers sit more than those working in a shared office and are at increased risk for sedentary health risks. Encourage team members to stand every 30 minutes, go on a walk during a break, or do some desk exercises.

Set aside a few minutes at the beginning or end of group video conferences for fun, human interaction- ask team members to move their web cam around to show off their home office or workspace. Do your best to make sure they feel like an important part of the business, and they’ll work harder and be happier.