The headlines right now are prominently featuring information and misinformation about the coronavirus. This new virus has everyone on high alert as we prepare for a potential pandemic. I appreciate this level-headed video
featuring Dr. Peter Lin calmly explaining what it is, how it's different than a common cold, and how to protect ourselves and others (wash your hands a lot; avoid "sneezy" people; don't touch your hands to your nose/face; stay home if you feel ill).
Here in the Seattle area, several local schools have been closed for a day or two for deep cleaning, as staff members and students have reported respiratory illnesses. There have been nine deaths at this point and the Governor Inslee has declared a state of emergency. These closures are likely going to occur more frequently as cases of the coronavirus increase. Case in point: Amazon just announced this week that one of their headquarter employees has been diagnosed with Covid-19. Organizations are well-advised to plan for containment or quarantine, with contingency plans for their employees who must work from home.
Based on the genetic signature of the virus, scientists in Washington State believe that it has been circulating in the general population for about six weeks. We are likely to see a rapid increase in the number of diagnosed cases of this virus in the coming weeks.
One recommended strategy is "self-quarantine," where an individual who has been exposed to the virus stays home for up to 24 days until they are free of symptoms. Because it can take up to two weeks for symptoms to appear, people can spread the infection without knowing they have it. Minimizing exposure in groups, even for non-infected people, is a way to "flatten the curve" of the outbreak. In cases where an infected individual has already exposed their colleagues at work, everyone may be sent home to reduce the spread of the infection.
The transition to a virtual workplace may be forced upon organizations that have just begun to think about how to support managers and employees who can not be in physical contact or proximity. Putting plans in place now can ease the transition to virtual work and reduce the impact on productivity. We use a collaboration model to describe five aspects of effective collaboration for virtual teams:
How will individuals who work from home be aware of their co-workers' activities, project status updates, etc.? If you have not already moved project status updates to online platforms, consider implementing a project management tool (such as Basecamp) and requiring the team to use it consistently for ongoing communication and updates. Ensure that everyone is trained and comfortable using the software. Many organizations we consult with use Microsoft Teams; however, they report that not all their virtual employees are skilled in using it. Ensure that someone on your virtual team is designated as your technical expert who can provide technical support to less-sophisticated team members. Plan an organized file structure to house project or task information.
Effective virtual teams have windows into everyone's availability. If your team is not already sharing their work calendars, it's time to agree on consistent calendaring practices (for example, color-coding calendar appointments or blocking off work time when someone can't be interrupted). Act now to make transparency the norm on the virtual team. If you are using an instant messaging system with status indicators, agree on common practices and ensure that everyone uses them to indicate when they are available to meet, take a phone call, or answer a text message.
As more people work from home, standard operating procedures are essential. If your team has not already standardized the most common workflows, take time to methodically describe your most important processes, procedures, and reporting mechanisms. Request across-the-board adoption of these practices. New virtual team leaders often report their frustration at not knowing what their employees are up to. They may begin micro-managing others as a result, a practice many virtual employees find obnoxious and demotivating. Agree now on communication practices. Will you have a daily virtual huddle using a web meeting platform such as Zoom? Do you expect people to respond to text messages within 10 minutes? Putting these agreements in place now can reduce tension later.
What are the guiding values that will keep your virtual team connected and supported? For example, "Kindness, Transparency, and Rapid Response" might become your team's guiding motto, whether the move to a virtual workplace is being taken proactively or in reaction to this latest crisis.
This potential pandemic highlights the need for solid contingency planning to allow the virtual team to work seamlessly from home. Consult with your Human Resources department to ensure that you are acting from the organization's established contingency plans. Identify which internal systems you can use to support strong communication and collaboration. What instant messaging system will you rely on for regular communication (e.g. Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams)? Would it make sense to replace email communication with a more collaborative system (e.g. Slack)? How will you meet online and collaborate regularly (e.g. Zoom)? Where will information be shared for easy access by all virtual team members (e.g. Teams or SharePoint)? How will teams socialize or strengthen personal connections (e.g. Yammer)?
If you would like to explore the pitfalls and possibilities of moving to a virtual workplace, join us for our next complimentary webinar, The Five Deadly Mistakes of Remote Leaders, on Wednesday, March 25, 1:00 pm ET / 10:0 am PT.