Google. Amazon. Apple. These were some of the earliest corporations that mandated remote working because of COVID-19.
Since then, nearly all businesses have followed suit as national and global agencies recommend social distancing to curb the spread of the virus. For huge firms with seemingly unlimited resources and technology, this displacement may be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Leaders of smaller businesses are likely struggling with a new reality where social distancing is a requirement, not a suggestion.
Previously, remote work was more a perk than a necessity for companies. Before the pandemic, just 41 percent of businesses globally had virtual office capabilities, which leaves a huge chunk of employees suddenly adrift in uncharted territory.
It’s unclear how long businesses will have to work through this new reality, but one thing is apparent: The executives who see this challenge as an opportunity will see their businesses thrive. Here are three ways you can make this outcome a reality for your company.
Lead by example
A fully remote workforce means the only “face-to-face” interaction you’ll have with employees is through videoconferencing. Some of the best ideas come through idle chat in the office, something harder in a virtual setting, but those days don’t have to end just because you’re at home.
As the head of your company, take the initiative to be readily available in virtual channels. If your employees see that you’re accessible, they’ll be more likely to follow your lead and share their thoughts and ideas with you and their colleagues.
These are the types of lessons I extol to my students as the academic director of Columbia University’s Executive MS in Technology Management program, through which candidates can grow their leadership skills in an increasingly digital world. As important as technology will become during this period of uncertainty, it means nothing if it’s not used in conjunction with strong leadership tactics.
Invest in a digital mindset
Technology such as the cloud makes remote working easy, but having server access from home is not enough, especially when your entire workforce may be displaced for an extended period. The decision to cancel all in-person classes at Columbia University would have been entirely different without investments in technology, such as 5G, that easily allows our students and professors to interact through video.
To that effect, the most important innovations are often born through crisis. Just look at Lehman Brothers: After 9/11, the company’s executives learned virtual connectivity was imperative. Employees could not fully do their jobs while stranded at home. A solution was needed, so digitizing work became imperative to avoid future disruptions.
Making a full-scale transition to new technology is unrealistic (and expensive) in such a short period, but even taking a small step to enable some face-to-face interaction, albeit virtually, is a step in the right direction.
At some point, health officials will contain coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean your vigilance should end. As we learned, crisis management plans shouldn’t end just because the crisis is over. Executives and managers of teams should see this as an opportunity to create, or refine, more comprehensive work-from-home policies.
Businesses that only adopt remote working for COVID-19 will abandon it at their own risk. Aside from preparing for future disruptions, there are indications that working from home can boost productivity. A two-year study from Stanford found a number of benefits, including decreased attrition, employees taking shorter breaks, and less time taken off. Additionally, companies saved almost $2,000 per employee on rent by reducing the amount of space needed.
Whether it’s two weeks or two months, businesses must adapt to the new realities that coronavirus presents. The executives who go above and beyond with their remote-work capabilities will not only lead the companies best suited to survive this crisis but will come out stronger for years to come.
Art Langer is the academic director of technology management at Columbia University’s School of Professional Studies and director of the Center for Technology Management at Columbia University.