Don Brunell

Don Brunell

Nobody knows how deep the impact of the coronavirus will be, but one thing that it is destined to test is how effectively people will work from home. 

Washington is at the point of the spear. Of the 22 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19, there are 19 in our state as of Tuesday. To avoid further exposure, employers are encouraging telecommuting, canceling meetings, events and travel, and taking extra precautions to sanitize work locations.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines is among the carriers taking additional measures to sanitize aircraft between flights. Still, the latest estimate is the airlines have lost $113 billion and are canceling flights to China, South Korea and Italy to deal with a drop-off in passengers and to avoid the risk of exposure.

Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are asking Seattle-based staff to work from home in March. Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, halted international travel for two weeks.

The University of Washington temporarily canceled in-person classes. Its 50,000 students now take their courses (including exams) remotely until the current quarter ends on March 20. Meanwhile, crews will be deep cleaning classrooms, auditoriums, libraries and other public spaces. 

The Society of Human Resources Managers (SHRM) studied telecommuting 20 years ago. It was supposed to be the next great workforce development that allowed employees to perform vital business functions from the comfort of home, and allow employers to enhance productivity and work/life balance, improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion and cut costs on office space.

At the time, the biggest barrier was resistance by middle management, wrote Charles Grantham, president of the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work. Their “surveillance-type” of management style was the challenge.

However, the number of U.S. workers who telecommute has risen 115 percent since 2005, according to the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report. Before the coronavirus hit, 3.7 million workers — roughly 2.8 percent of the workforce — telecommuted. 

That figure is growing as the tight talent market pushes more employers to adopt flexible working arrangements to accommodate the scheduling needs of hard-to-find-and-keep employees. 

Overall, the number of employers offering a work from home option has grown by 40 percent in the past five years. Two-thirds of managers who offer telecommuting flexibility report those employees are more productive.

Global Workplace Analytics did a costs and benefits analysis and found some barriers to allowing work from home. One is management mistrust. Three out of four in management say they trust those they manage; however, a third said they want to see them just to be sure.

Overcoming jealousy among other workers who either were not allowed to work at home or have the impression the telecommuters are not doing their share can be corrosive in the office. 

Telecommuters must be self-directed and comfortable with technology and arrangements for remote tech support. They need a defined home office space and understand that telecommuting is not a suitable replacement for daycare unless they can schedule work hours around their children’s needs.

Those working at home need access to company systems, software and data. Companies need to address remote technical support issues and ensure remote workers are included in the latest upgrades.

GWA found that in some instances employment law and local zone problems are thorny. For example, when accidents occur in the homes of teleworkers, how does employer liability apply?

Finally, keeping those working at home included as an integral part of the team is an important priority. Managers must make sure they are invited to office events, key meetings and social occurrences. 

The bottom line is when we finally get a handle on this outbreak, there will be lots of lessons learned thanks to COVID-19.

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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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