How to Rapidly Execute a Crisis 100% Remote Work Plan (With Limited Experience Working Flexibly)


In a matter of days, organizations have gone from contingency planning for the coronavirus/COVID-19 to having to rapidly execute a 100% remote work crisis plan for employees with jobs that will allow it.

Suddenly, more and more organizations that have little to no experience with work flexibility find themselves implementing the most extreme form–100% remote work.   

Any implementation advice for these managers and employees needs to match their introductory level of mastery, support rapid adoption of a completely new way of working, and reinforce what can be learned to guide ongoing post-crisis change (because it is inevitable).  

Yet most of the high-profile examples in the media, to date, have focused on tech companies like Facebook, Apple, and Twitter that have told thousands of employees to work from home, seemingly overnight, without missing a beat. That’s possible because leveraging technology to flexibly get the job done is part of the cultural DNA of these organizations.

The same is true for the remote work implementation tips being offered. It’s valid advice but much of it requires an initial familiarity with working in a non-traditional way to understand how to apply it without being overwhelmed.    

Here are get started tips to help you temporarily and rapidly execute a 100% remote work if you have limited prior experience working flexibly:

(Note: if you still have time plan and practice before going live, follow these planning tips outlined in the article I wrote for Harvard Business Review two weeks ago.) 

Manage Expectations and the Pace of Change Upfront

The flexible work genie is out of the bottle once a leader tells their people to work 100% remotely, if they are able, for a period of time. You can’t expect everyone to go back to business-as-usual post-crisis without questioning “why can’t we keep working this way?”

Therefore, it’s important to set clear expectations upfront regarding how long you estimate the crisis response will last, how the organization will learn from the experience, and what the expectations are in terms of how everyone will work, at least in the near term, once the crisis is over. 

Insights from this temporary experience with remote work can inform a deliberate and strategic post-crisis review of the way work is done. Any future transition to a flexible work culture will most likely include some level of remote work, but it may not be 100% remote. In fact, chances are it will not. You will want time to review and determine the best approach for your organization.

The upfront communication can be as simple as:

“We estimate that for the next (period of time) those with appropriate jobs will be asked to work remotely. This will be an experiment in a new way of working for many of us and our overall organization. While our goal will be to resume normal operations as quickly as possible, we are committed to studying what we learn from this experience. We will use those findings to inform an ongoing, deliberate post-crisis review of the way we work today, and in the future. We thank you for your partnership and patience as we continue to serve clients/customers while keeping our people safe and our business running. We will learn from this challenging period to make our organization even more effective and resilient in the future.”

Then show evidence of your commitment to gather insights from this temporary experiment to drive future change (See below).  

Use Familiar Technology, Then Don’t Be Afraid to “Interrupt” Each Other

As soon as possible, test the primary technologies you’ve chosen to use to communicate and get the work done during the crisis period.

Work the basic bugs out first: can everyone get on the VPN (you will be surprised how many people can’t)? Does your video camera work? Does everyone clearly understand the document and data security protocols?

Use tools and technology with which most people are already familiar, and your current system has the capacity to support most effectively. Now is not the time to migrate to a new video conferencing platform, messaging system or collaboration software, even though you may plan to do so in the future.

If phone, email, and text are the primary ways most people communicate today, which according to our research they are, then use those most frequently during the remote work experiment.

Two technologies you may want to consider increasing your use of, if you already have access and familiarity with them, would be video conferencing and cloud-based document storage but stick to mastering the most basic functions during the crisis. You can introduce and master new technologies and tools after the remote work crisis response is over as you’ve learned in real-time where the gaps in your systems may be.  

Finally, DON’T BE AFRAID TO “INTERRUPT” EACH OTHER! This is the toughest social norm to break with remote work: If you can’t see someone then it feels like they aren’t working so you don’t want to “bother” them. YOU ARE ALL WORKING. Chat, call, ping each other. Regularly. You’ll figure out a new rhythm.

Expect and Forgive Imperfect Workspaces and Background Activity

Typically, when working remotely, an employee will want to have a quiet workspace with walls and a door. Background activities and distractions should be limited as much as possible. Including barking dogs, screaming children and roaming roommates. But that might not be possible during this crisis remote work period.

Establish that it’s okay to be responsive and accessible regardless of what’s happening around you in your remote work environment. You can explain what’s going on. During this crisis response, everyone will understand. It will be especially important if local schools close and children are home.

Redirect and Optimize the Work–“What do we need to do, and how do we do it 100% remotely?”

Everything the team does should be planned through the lens of “What do we need to do, and how can we do it 100% remotely?” Have the team look at its shared calendars (assuming everyone has an up-to-date shared calendar) and review the dates you estimate the remote work crisis period will cover to:

  • Redirect: Identify tasks/meetings that can be handled virtually without disruption and execute as many logistical changes as possible (e.g. lining up technology and updating meeting invites). Even if you have never done a meeting or event virtually via webinar or video chat, try it. Set it up as an experiment so expectations are managed. One tip is to schedule a 10-minute log-on buffer before each meeting starts. This allows everyone to be signed on and ready to go when the meeting starts.  
  • Reschedule activities that can’t be executed, even imperfectly, virtually. 
  • Optimize: Fill the newly available time and bandwidth that becomes available with important backburner projects but just never seem to get done. Every group has them—an article to write, market research, CRM updates, brainstorming new products and services. As a team, make a list and use the newly available time to get them done, setting the organization up for even greater success post-crisis.

Continually Prioritize and Check-in (Even If It Feels Like Micro-Managing)

When you implement remote work as part of a flexible work culture-shift, you have to train everyone in what we call “the cadence.” This is the ongoing expectation-setting and progress updates between managers and direct reports that happen as part of the regular work process.

These frequent check-ins can happen in the form of meetings and via online workflow tracking and coordination. When everyone isn’t together in the same physical space, “the cadence” fosters confidence the work is getting done so there’s less focus on when and where the work is happening.

Most workplaces that don’t have familiarity with working flexibly will go into a rapidly deployed 100% remote work crisis response without that “cadence” in place. I know this because often managers ask me, “How do I know they are working if I can’t see them?” When I say, “Oh that’s easy how do you know that now? It shouldn’t change if they work remotely.” Nine times out of ten I get a blank stare, which means the “cadence” is not happening because if it was, they wouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

Once initial priorities are set, schedule regular periods each week to review work (and to touch base personally), one-on-one and as a team.

Re-prioritize as needed. Keep reminding each other—managers and direct reports—this process is what replaces the, often misguided, assumption that everyone is working simply because they’re physically working together at the same time in the same place. It also replicates the organic social interaction that everyone will miss.

Try your best to set up a “cadence”, even if it feels like micro-managing at first because it’s not what everyone is used to. Work together as a team to clarify priorities, but don’t go crazy trying to adopt a whole new performance management process (e.g. Management By Objectives or Objectives and Key Results).

Remember, keep it simple for now, but use the awareness that you may need a more robust system to inform post-crisis upgrades.

Learn from the Experience to Inform Next-Stage Flexible Work Culture Change

You are going to have to address the reality that the flexible work genie is now out of the bottle post-crisis.

You may not be ready to officially rethink how, when and where work can be done immediately after the remote work experiment is over. You’ll want time to review what happened but you are going to have to respond with some thoughtful, deliberate next-level approach to work flexibility at some point.

Again, there is no going back to business as usual. Therefore, it’s important to show that the organization is trying to learn what’s happening while it is happening.

Send and review a brief weekly SurveyMonkey survey that asks what’s working, what’s not and why or not while the remote work experiment is underway. Consider filtering the data by managers and employees to notice gaps. Then when the crisis period is over review the findings and communicate how you plan to use them to determine the next steps.

If your organization has limited experience with working flexibly, this rapid transition from planning to execution poses unique challenges, and opportunities, especially when the shift to 100% remote work happens quickly.

This introductory implementation advice regarding messaging, technology, workflow planning, oversight, and insight gathering is meant to help you minimize operating disruptions and the sense of overwhelm while keeping everyone healthy and safe.

Prepare now to sustain the momentum of change and reimagine how, when and where work could be done more broadly. And in doing so, unlock new levels of performance, engagement, and resilience that the organization wouldn’t have achieved otherwise…and find the silver lining in an otherwise difficult moment for everyone.

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