Written by Ann Steele and Meghann Shutt

The recent outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) has workers, employers, schools, students, and parents scrambling to respond. Just yesterday, governors and school districts across the country, including Arlington County, Virginia where I live, announced that all public schools in the state will close for several weeks, leaving millions of working professional parents to find alternative solutions to reporting to a physical location for work. While some parents in the healthcare, retail, childcare, and service industries have no choice but to report to work, others may have options for remote and telework. Even with social distancing, the experience of this outbreak has been a unifying one as we collectively look for alternatives that will protect the most vulnerable among us, allow our economy to continue and nurture and protect our bodies.

Five years ago I created Steele Strategies, a virtual office and consulting company that helps workplaces transition toward flexible mobile work environments to meet the changing needs of modern workers. As a working parent whose first child was born 20 years into a career, I refused to believe that the only two choices were to see my kids for an hour every day before they went to bed or to leave my career completely behind and stay home full time. I started Steele Strategies with the firm belief that we could work at the intersection of people, place, and technology to transform workplace cultures and respond to the demands of professionals looking for purpose, meaning, and balance in their lives while also accomplishing results for their organizations. Over the course of these five years, I have come to realize that there are a few crucial components companies and agencies need to understand to successfully make this transition, and I share them here with those of you who may be scrambling to adjust your workplaces in light of Coronavirus.

While there are some investments in technology that are important for a dispersed team working mostly in a virtual space (cell phones, laptops, infrastructure for online meetings like Skype or Google Hangouts), the most critical investment a company can make is in its people. This involves hiring talented individuals, trusting them, leaving wiggle room for how a workday is structured, and being proactive about adaptive workplaces to mitigate disruption of business when any unexpected crisis occurs.

Hire good people and trust them.

Steele Strategies and our clients realize that to succeed, you must hire talented people and then trust them to accomplish their work. Invest in paying talented professionals who will deliver results and evaluate them based on those results. Trust them to manage their time to succeed and honestly report the work that went into those results. When you invite people to meet these expectations, they either rise to meet them or quickly weed themselves out.

We have found that to make this cultural shift, many existing organizations must change their thinking from managing by line of sight to managing by results. Rather than standing over an employee to ensure their work is accomplished, managers will recognize success by the results produced. Results speak for themselves. Steele Strategies has managed several workplace transformation projects with federal clients who have the full range of management staff from Baby Boomers to Gen Y. Our experiences and results confirm that this change can be made successfully across generations and in either private or public sectors.

As the nature of work changes, the nature of management must change with it.  When organizations work with their staff, listen to their concerns, crowdsource ideas, and involve the whole organization in change management, people will come along – and in our experience, will welcome the added trust and flexibility of a mobile environment. The key is thinking through this change and managing the shift with people in mind. Training, focus groups, and avenues for anonymous feedback, for example, are all helpful tools to manage this change.

Ultimately, flexible workplaces attract and retain the most talented people who want to work in an environment where they are trusted and where they have the flexibility to manage their work day to see a child’s school play, make it to a midday exercise class, move cities, or extend their travel by working from a hotel room for a day or two. Employee retention in flexible work environments is high, and employees invest deeply in the growth and success of the company as a whole. According to the Remote Work Savings Calculator by Global Workplace Analytics’ leader Kate Lister, businesses save almost $10,000 per employee who works remotely an average 2.5 days per week. Savings occur through increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, effective continuity of operations, real estate cost reductions, and decreased turnover.

Create flexible workday schedules, leave policies, and practices.

To be successful with adding telework options, organizations must instill the practice that a day working from home is not different from a day at the office. They need to build the practices, habits, and policies that support working from home. When unpredictable situations like Coronavirus occur, flexible business environments are already prepared. Steele Strategies and the clients we have worked with were ready to go mobile, having experience and comfort in using Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and remote call-in options for meetings.  

There are an unlimited number of possibilities to create workplace policies that allow for flexible workday schedules and leave policies. You might set a policy that asks staff to be virtually available for a core set of hours (like 10 – 3) and then allows them to flex an early or late start and end time. Meetings are scheduled during those core hours. Steele Strategies has an unlimited amount of annual leave days available to staff, though employees are expected to hit a target amount of work hours in a year; how employees manage that is up to them. We also ask the team to communicate openly about their time “out of the office” and communicate that proactively with clients and on a shared calendar.

Workers need to feel empowered to make choices about their days that best serve their personal needs and professional goals. Building a culture of trust between colleagues and among supervisors and staff is also critical to achieving this. When it works, employees don’t have to feel guilty about taking a break during the day to exercise, get dinner on the stove, or make time for helping their kids with homework or making a recurring therapy appointment. Absenteeism decreases, morale increases, and employees socially invest in the company.

Get proactive not reactive.

Coronavirus invites us all to stop and reflect about the nature of our work environments and the limits of our ability to adapt and respond to crises. Business leaders should understand that it is time to invest in adaptable workplaces that are able to respond to any unpredictable situation. It doesn’t take large amounts of capital to make these changes, and the potential costs to businesses who cannot adapt outweigh the investments in mobility to businesses. Investing in people is always a net gain for a business.

I encourage business leaders and public managers to think beyond the Coronavirus crisis and seize this opportunity to plan for more substantial and sustainable workplace changes. For Steele Strategies it is gratifying to know that our clients made very few adjustments to respond to this unexpected crisis, because the work to develop mobile practices and trusting work cultures is well underway. Those teams have developed the muscles of connecting through virtual environments. And while workers and supervisors may have to be more tolerant of kids in the background of video conference screens, parents who may be working earlier or later hours because of school and daycare closures, business continues as usual, and at least one sector of the economy does not have to grind to a halt, which benefits us all.