Virtual working: moving from crisis response to normality

The challenge of managing a virtual workforce

For years the discussion has raged about the pros and cons of flexible working – and now, suddenly, we’ve been dropped into a real-life field test. COVID-19 has effectively forced employers, whether they were ready or not, into a virtual working model at breakneck speed.

Huge numbers of employees are now working remotely, many of them simultaneously juggling childcare and significant family commitments. The transition has been easier for some organisations (particularly those that were already practising flexible working) than others, but it’s all happened quickly and in an atmosphere that is hardly conducive to wellbeing.

Now that employers have worked through their initial crisis response, with some furloughing workers and others setting up the technology required for employees to work from home, the focus is turning towards the challenge of managing a virtual workforce on a large scale.

It’s likely that maintaining productivity will be a significant challenge in the coming weeks, not least because sickness absence is far higher than normal and many people will need time away to cope with family issues. But there are useful techniques and tools that can help maintain engagement in this extraordinary situation.

Techniques and tools

Recognise that everyone is different

People react to working at home in different ways. Some people will be comfortable, while others will need more support, interaction and encouragement. Managers will need to use their emotional intelligence to assess which members of their team are struggling with the isolation and, at a basic level, follow some of this guidance: 

  • Arrange video meetings rather than conference calls – seeing the faces of your team and being able to read body language gives you the best indication of their state of mind. 

  • Check in on people regularly, preferably as a one-on-one so the team feels supported and can raise any concerns privately 

  • Don’t over-communicate. While some workers will draw energy from contact, the more introverted workers will find constant video calls exhausting. Everyone will be spending far more time in front of a screen than normal, and some people will appreciate some time alone – direct your time to those that need it.

  • Be mindful of the tone of emails – the written word is far less nuanced than conversation and open to misinterpretation.

Make virtual meetings engaging

As most of us have discovered, working from home is fraught with distractions but conversely, can also be quite mundane. Sitting in front of a screen all day doesn’t necessarily make for the most stimulating of days – but there are techniques that can make virtual meetings more engaging:

  • Use visual tools such as polls or videos wherever possible to vary the format of meetings and keep people’s attention.

  • Set rules of engagement for virtual meetings. You have expectations for behaviour in physical meetings; remote working shouldn’t be any different.

  • In larger virtual meetings, ask someone on your team to act as a ‘spotter’ to watch the facial expressions of participants – a warning sign that they’re distracted, struggling or disengaged.

  • Not all meetings should be about work. Virtual coffee breaks – to replicate the water cooler moments in the office – can help maintain a sense of community, as can social sessions such as team quizzes

  • Use social media tools to engage the team and get creative. We’ve seen an increased fluidity between corporate and personal communication channels such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Houseparty in recent weeks.

Explore productivity management technology

Tools intended to support productivity and home working have developed apace in recent years. Coincidentally, at PwC we were already piloting new software designed to enhance remote working and management when the pandemic hit. The software allows us, for example, to measure the level, sentiment and directionality of the digital interactions we have with members of our team, and self-identify where improvements could be made.. (If this sounds a bit Big Brother-ish, we should add that we have control over when we use it, and the results are for individuals alone.)

We were also routinely using a system that describes the projects that our people are currently working on and the skills they have. This is part of our commitment to ‘fair work’, which expands the opportunities available to people who are keen to learn – but it has been useful in helping us understand what people are doing and their availability during the crisis.

Provide reassurance from the top

The employer’s duty of care towards its employees is, of course, the main priority at a time when everyone is understandably worried and distracted. The tone from the top – always an important element in creating a productive atmosphere – will be critical during the pandemic. Employees will be looking for clear and regular communication about the situation and their job security from their leaders. Leaders will themselves need to adapt their leadership style to consider how they engage their workforce in the virtual world, with traditional ways of engaging through townhalls and meetings requiring them to adapt. They will also want to know that their employer is contributing positively to society during the crisis.

Don’t neglect furloughed workers

It’s vital to keep engaged and communicating with workers who have been furloughed during the crisis. When we eventually begin to return to normal, the returning workforce will need to hit the ground running and want to do the best for the company. Keeping in regular contact with furloughed workers, keeping them informed about the business circumstances and resilience and able to raise questions, and reassuring them of their future will help to keep them engaged.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time for everyone but with mindful management it will be possible to show that a flexible working model can work for many people, not just now but in the long term. Many organisations are already considering their approach for when we come out of COVID-19, and are thinking about how they can make the positive elements they’ve encountered stick. If we rethink leadership, digital and operating models for the future, we can make sure that the good elements of virtual working become the new normal.

Contact us

Victoria Robinson

Victoria Robinson

Workforce Strategy & Culture Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7843 368488

Will Barkway

Will Barkway

Director, Communications Leader, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7710 396634

Alice Payne

Alice Payne

Senior Manager, Change and Communications, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7889 642737

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