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December 2019: This is when the world received its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Within months, it became a global pandemic infecting millions around the world, and taking countless lives along the way.

As a result of governments’ efforts of outbreak controls, billions of workers are staggered at work and most businesses had no choice but to respond with a shutdown of operation, either partially or in full. Social distancing, self-quarantine and border restrictions have confined the mobility of workforce in most countries. It is therefore imperative that businesses operate and run their teams in a dispersed manner, whether at different locations and/or under flexible working hours.

By answering the following questions, we aim to share the different ways on how to achieve greater sustainability when businesses are required to operate in a dispersed manner.

#1 How do businesses maintain effective communication with a dispersed team?
Many companies had never considered running their teams remotely. With the abrupt but necessary shift to this work model, the responsibility of managing a remote workforce is an unchartered territory for most, and communicating virtually can be much more challenging than one could expect.

Employers should pre-emptively address employee concerns, including how to access tools such as computer resources, internet connections and company servers, printing facilities, conference bridges, etc. to make remote working technologically viable. Next, business leaders should consider implementing the following measures to enhance effective communication among a dispersed workforce:

  • Limit communication to just a few companies preferred channels or tools;
  • Arrange routine meetings with well-prepared and organised agendas as well as concrete action points and plans;
  • Use video conferencing. Having virtual meetings has proven to be more effective than just voice calls or written correspondences as participants tend to be more focused and engaged with dynamic interactions;
  • Recording and documenting. Important communications should be documented so as to avoid any miscommunications and/or misunderstanding among the parties involved. Meeting organisers can also consider recording video conferencing or calls for record and future references;
  • Be transparent and consistent in the communications that conveys leadership and guidance, avoid confusions and reduce anxiety.

#2 How to equip and empower staff when practicing telecommuting or remote working?
Simply providing staff with the required equipment and tools for remote access is not enough. As responsible and caring employers, we should consider various scenarios that may occur while working remotely, and ways to provide employees with the supports they need. We can ask ourselves:

  1. Are our employees physically and psychologically ready to work in a different setting?
  2. How long will it take them to become familiarised with the new environment and equipment to work productively?
  3. Are we covered with sufficient support whenever in need, such as IT problem shooting?
  4. Managers and supervisors know their teams best. Have we considered empowering and granting supervisory level personnel with the authority to identify the most appropriate work mode(s) for the team?

Further, it is equally important to get the team working in a more structured fashion. Here are some ideas for areas for enhancement:

  • Proper division of work with defined roles and responsibilities;
  • Concise and clear instructions;
  • Agreed project timeline and milestones; and
  • Contact details of the specified points of assistance and escalation.

In addition, now is probably the best time to encourage innovation to get work done virtually and efficiently. Reports and documents can be circulated in an electronic format via secured online collaboration tools. Video and tele-conferencing can replace physical meetings. Review, approval and signing processes can be streamlined using web-based processing facilities and e-signature arrangements.

#3 How to set the boundaries between life and work?
Some may find remote work, home office and flexible hours difficult to adapt to. This includes those who do not have the luxury for a separate space and proper equipment, and those employees who need to spare some efforts in entertaining and taking care of their children and other dependents when working from home. As boundaries between life and work are easily muddled, some may find it difficult to define working hours.

There are a few practical tips to help these employees to get into the work mode at home: Setting aside specific schedule, area for work, detailed delivery timeline, and managing expectations of colleagues and family members of the “idled hours”. When face-to-face opportunities are rare, providing guidance for self-discipline, trust and expectation management will help the team deliver quality work and communicate effectively while maintaining morale. More importantly, employers should respect the boundaries between life and work of their remote workers by not asking them to work during non-working hours.

Changes in priorities in the times of global turbulence
In times of a crisis, business leaders should ask themselves:

  1. “How do we continue when business continuity is interrupted?”
  2. “Should there be a change in priorities?
  3. “Is business growth still the primary objective?”

In addressing the impact of COVID-19, many companies have shifted focus towards sustainability and flexibility instead of striving for business growth.

 Meanwhile, with a dispersed team working in numerous locations, companies should put a greater emphasis on risks and compliance, and ensuring staffs are updated on all relevant regulatory and compliance changes through continuous training. Further, more resources should be invested into IT to create viable and sustainable remote work arrangements.

Along with the suggestions for managing a dispersed team, companies should also consider alternative resourcing strategies for both short and long term. Engaging an alternative workforce and outsourcing are foreseeable HR trends that will highly affect the future business environment.

Numerous local industry giants and renowned brands have fallen because they failed to adapt in this fast changing world, with never-ending challenges. Those that thrive and succeed have the agility to manouvre around new business obstacles and to embrace them with an open mind. Businesses leaders of today should always stay positive, be creative and unafraid to explore alternatives that may become the new norm.

Portia Tang - Director, Head of Professional Resources Solutions & Client Services

BDO Hong Kong