COVID-19: Supporting your organisation’s work-from-home mobilisation

Monday, 06 April 2020

Guy Turner and Phil Weinberg photo
Guy Turner and Phil Weinberg
Partners in Performance

    For some, remote working has been a valuable working solution for several years. However it didn’t just occur overnight and, for many, it was possible because they could depend on a co-located office-based team in the background. Entire organisations working remotely alongside more seasoned remote workers is an uncharted territory that requires effective leadership.

    There are a number of areas that leadership teams can focus on to support their employees during the current government mandate to self-isolate and work from home wherever possible. Of paramount importance to achieving both compliance and performance is ensuring your employees feel valued and valuable. Organisations that manage the current work-from-home mobilisation well will be more efficient, more cohesive and more adaptable when – or if – their employees return to the office.

    In normal circumstances, there are six crucial elements to making remote working work. The current COVID-19 crisis adds a seventh factor:

    1. Keep your remote teams and organisation safe.
    2. Be explicit about what is required – what, when and who.
    3. Understand your remote teams – everyone works differently.
    4. Leverage digital platforms.
    5. Set your remote team norms and behaviours to maintain collaboration and connection.
    6. Chat frequently – emails and messages are not enough.
    7. Recognise that clients and suppliers are dealing with the same challenge.

    Keep your remote teams and organisation safe

    With teams working remotely, there is no visibility of their working conditions and possible risks. The lucky few will work in an established home office but many will be working from the kitchen table or the bedroom, bringing new challenges and health risks.

    Australian model WHS laws apply and organisations are required to minimise risks – and help their remote teams think through how to reduce obvious risks – by providing guidance on setting up a safe home office environment and ergonomic practices (for example, raised laptops). Other WHS considerations include protocols for injuries and attendance.

    Most organisations already have employee assistance programs (EAP) – now is the time to remind remote teams that they exist and encourage them to access them when needed.

    If some teams have limited work in the short term, consider redeployment not just to existing organisational functions but also to new functions that check on employee well-being or deliver essential training. More informal forums (for example, WhatsApp) among cohorts or teams can also help to maintain a sense of community, whether through problem solving, decision making or banter.

    At an organisational level, revisit health and safety courses, documentation and risk frameworks to ensure they cover the challenges of working remotely. This may mean developing new protocols that are specific to newly created teams and workflows. It may also mean providing alternative equipment to your remote team to keep them fit, healthy and sane.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Has every person working remotely completed a risk assessment with appropriate mitigation plans?
    • What happens if an employee hurts themselves while working outside the office?
    • Does our risk framework cover remote working arrangements? How is it monitored and evaluated?
    • Are individuals aware of the Employee Assistance Program and know how to access it?
    • How are we tracking and responding to incidents?
    • How are we tracking and responding to employee feedback?

    Be explicit about what is required – what, when and who

    Remote working at its worst allows inefficiencies, duplicates effort, fosters uncertainty and delays and causes low morale. Organisations can be slower to spot these issues as they arise because colleagues are unable to physically meet and are limited to virtual communication. In parallel, new ways of teamworking will emerge spontaneously and independently, driving both good and poor practice.

    Issues of inefficiencies and uncertainty are further compounded for complex organisations with both inter- and intra- divisional workflows and outputs. It may be prudent, as organisations adapt to the immediate shift of a workforce that is all working from home, to focus on achieving fewer (key) common outputs well – in the first instance and while the organisation acclimatises.

    To address this, it is important to set clear expectations:

    • Agree priority deliverables for time period (week, month, quarter)
      - Explain the organisational strategy – in as much as it is developing
      - Explain how deliverables fit into the big picture
    • Agree specific actions to deliver these priorities
      - What need to be done?
      - When is it needed?
      - Which one person is accountable for delivering it?
    • Overinvest in transparency and visibility of communications
      - Ensure all stakeholders are in the loop upfront to avoid duplication of efforts
      - Ensure the celebration of great examples of coordination across the organisation
      - Ensure the sharing of lessons learned
    • Document key new protocols and processes as they develop
      - Document key new and agreed systems that have been designed for, or have evolved from, working from home
      - Make these protocols and processes widely available to those who need them
    • Overinvest in time directly speaking with employees and check on both their physical and mental wellbeing.

    Leading remotely also reinforces the need for cascading KPI targets, regular reviews and adaptable and aligned objectives. Of particular importance with a work-from-home workforce is alignment of KPIs to ‘softer’ targets such as organisational values, and cultural coordinates such as vision and mission. This cascades from boardroom to management to team leads to individual contributors, enabling all members of a highly dispersed workforce to pull in the same direction.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Do all divisions, teams and individual contributors understand what is expected of them?
    • Are regular reviews occurring to agree priorities, check status and determine next steps?
    • Are key, new processes documented and readily available to those who need them?

    Understand your remote, home-based team (including your own preferences)

    Everyone works differently in the office and that’s equally true when working remotely, although an individual’s personal situation may complicate remote work further.

    It is important to recognise individual working styles. Some will find it a welcome relief to work at home alone, others will miss the energy of having people around, while some will despair at being unable to draw a clear line between home and work. Each leader needs to understand what their people need so they can work at their best.

    Invest the time to listen, understand and empathise with what the organisation’s teams are going through. From a distance, it is difficult to be sure of whether it’s a case of ‘having a bad day’ or whether it’s a structural or personal issue. Accordingly it’s useful to assume positive intentions and encourage others to do so. Give people the benefit of doubt, yet recognise it may be necessary intervene quickly to address situations before they escalate.

    Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of taking care of yourself. Irrespective of your seniority, some form of down-time and distraction is critical. Chances are this is a marathon, not a sprint, so taking care of yourself and leading by example is vital.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Is there flexibility to adapt working hours or meeting times?
    • What processes do we have in place to capture and evaluate how divisions, teams and individuals adjusting?

    Leverage digital platforms

    Working remotely introduces additional challenges around data and security, so it’s important to evaluate IT capabilities, including cyber risks – early and continuously.

    Home networks are typically not as secure as corporate networks, particularly when networks are shared (for example, with multiple people working from home, or with children distance learning), so the organisation’s ‘human firewall’ becomes more important to protect the organisation from cyber threats. Data and privacy compliance training is critical.

    IT operations play a crucial role in finding and applying a sustainable solution to the organisation’s work-from-home mobilisation, as existing process and policies often limit how quickly a team can access systems efficiently and safely from outside the office.

    Email and messaging can only go so far towards embedding effective and sustainable workflows. Many current digital platforms offer far more potential than most organisations currently use.

    While established technology architecture will continue to function, it’s important to take into account additional requirements from employees who may not have adequate equipment (for example, smart phones and laptops) and from new workflows that need to accommodate more robust virtual exchanges (for example, improved internet access).

    Once the basics are in place, there is a vast array of online platforms available to enable communication (for example, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp), information sharing and collaboration (for example, Google Docs, Miro, Microsoft Teams) and project management (for example, Trello,, BaseCamp). Boardrooms will also need to consider platforms that may serve their specific meeting and reporting needs (for example, Diligent, Boardvantage).

    If this is the first time using these platforms, support how teams and individuals will familiarise themselves with how to use them. This could include training, either in groups or self-guided, or appointing ‘ambassadors’ to provide support within divisions or regions.

    It is prudent to not rely on any single digital tool for every aspect of communication and collaboration. They are not designed to do everything and no one size fits all. It will be important to navigate the tension between allowing each working group to identify what works for them and applying a whole-of-organisation commitment to a particular platform solution.

    Taking a longer-term view, these new platforms may become another part of the organisation’s toolkit and culture, enabling greater coordination and contribution.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Do we have a robust data and privacy compliance framework in place?
    • Have cyber risks been assessed and mitigated?
    • Does everyone in the organisation have the required tools and infrastructure to work remotely and collaboratively?
    • Is IT actively involved and engaged in evaluating and rolling out new digital platforms?
    • How are we evaluating new digital platforms as potential solutions to current work-from-home needs? And future requirements?

    Set your remote team norms and behaviours to maintain collaboration and connection

    Organisations with a workforce that has been freshly mobilised to work from home benefit from quickly setting up and embedding newly established cultural norms and behaviours.

    The collaboration style that board and management demonstrate during a crisis sets the tone from the top for the rest of the organisations. Directors and managers should prepare themselves to communicate more frequently, more proactively and more authentically than normal – and, accordingly, it’s important to maintain enough energy and focus to facilitate respective roles and responsibilities effectively.

    Embed collaboration and connection:

    • Take the lead in locking in frequent communication:
      - Assign central accountability for sharing and reinforcing team best practice.
      - Be clear about your preference range and let your team find their ideal preference within this range.
    • Exploit the tools available to reduce pressure and minimise adaptation required:
      - Encourage video calls and screen sharing to engage individuals during team exchanges.
      - Virtual group chats act as informal forums; exploit familiar tools where possible.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Does management have oversight that all teams have established regular virtual meetings?
    • Do teams have access to available tools to stay connected personally?
    • Are we building a sense of shared experience through links between team members and the organisation?
    • Do employees working from home have access to intangible resources such as people or information that will support them in their efforts to work autonomously?

    Chat more often

    Leaders can no longer see their team and vice versa, so the natural cues that come from actions, guidance and coaching in the office disappear. This can be achieved with remote teams but it needs a different approach.

    While emails and messaging will significantly increase, successful leadership of teams that are working from home do not rely solely on these. Organisational people managers should check in often (potentially daily) – by phone, Zoom, Skype Video, FaceTime, WhatsApp – with teams, subsets of teams and individuals.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    Have we prioritised and allocated regular time to directly speak with individuals within our organisational responsibility?

    Do we have any concerns about individuals who have become ‘invisible’? How can we explore and address this?

    Recognise that your clients and suppliers are dealing with the same challenges

    Every organisation is dealing with their own circumstances and challenges, and some organisations will shift more rapidly to remote work than others. Encourage your organisation to show empathy where possible. Existing customers and suppliers can be supported by being understanding and, if opportunity allows, sharing experiences of what has worked and what hasn’t.

    Some questions to ask your organisation

    • Have we spoken to key suppliers and customers to understand the impact of both parties working remotely?
    • How much detail of our short-term and longer-term work-from-home strategy for managing this crisis do we need to share with our similarly impacted clients, contacts and suppliers?

    About the authors

    Guy Turner and Phil Weinberg, Partners in Performance

    Guy Turner is director and global practice lead, with over 20 years’ experience building the capital practice team across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Australasia. Phil Weinberg is global lead for intellectual property, capability and remote support, building and nurturing capability and intellectual property teams across four continents.

    About us

    The Australian Institute of Company Directors is committed to strengthening society through world-class governance. We aim to be the independent and trusted voice of governance, building the capability of a community of leaders for the benefit of society. Our membership includes directors and senior leaders from business, government and the not-for-profit sectors.

    This document is part of a Director Tool series prepared by the Australian Institute of Company Directors. This series has been designed to provide general background information and as a starting point for undertaking a board-related activity. It is not designed to replace a detailed review of the subject matter. The material in this document does not constitute legal, accounting or other professional advice. While reasonable care has been taken in its preparation, the Australian Institute of Company Directors does not make any express or implied representations or warranties as to the completeness, currency, reliability or accuracy of the material in this document. This document should not be used or relied upon as a substitute for professional advice or as a basis for formulating business decisions. To the extent permitted by law, the Australian Institute of Company Directors excludes all liability for any loss or damage arising out of the use of the material in this document. Any links to third-party websites are provided for convenience only and do not represent endorsement, sponsorship or approval of those third parties, or any products and/or services offered by third parties, or any comment on the accuracy or currency of the information included in third party websites. The opinions of those quoted do not necessarily represent the view of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

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