Work from home policies are not enough

Business leaders must acknowledge the irreplaceable value of employees.
Written by Forrester Research, Contributor

COVID-19 is a human tragedy: Lost lives, psychological suffering, and severe economic disruption are inevitable. The first response from businesses has been simple: Adapt as much of the workforce as possible to working from home. Many have; Atlas reports that virtual private network usage increased 124% in just two weeks.

This urgent rush to work from home has been successful, and a crucial complement to social distancing. But the "work from home" mantra isn't a panacea. Businesses face challenges related to their business ecosystems, company culture, and technology that will require strategic pivots to keep businesses afloat.

Take "digital nomads," freelancers and contractors who can work anywhere. They should adjust very easily to working from home, right? But they power a business ecosystem of services, from cafes and Airbnbs to co-working spaces, that the coronavirus rendered unusable. Expect WeWork, already beleaguered financially, to be a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis, likely going out of business this year.

Of course, not every employee can work from home to begin with. A Forrester survey revealed that 60% could adapt to working from home -- meaning 40% cannot. Many of these are frontline workers: Customer-facing occupations like retail sales associates and nurses or production jobs like warehouse employees, factory workers, and chefs.

As office employees are sent home for their safety, frontline workers question their own safety. Italian frontline workers went on strike and protested as they felt left behind. Frontline workers also face higher risk of seroconversion performing their duties; Amazon workers have tested positive for coronavirus at six warehouses. Adding personal protective equipment and frequent breaks for handwashing can help.

Employees who are now working from home full time present their own challenges. Technology support burdens rise as many employees, unfamiliar with remote-working tools, suddenly must use them constantly. Providing the right technology tools, or using existing ones, takes on new urgency. Microsoft Teams, a collaboration platform, saw usage spike by 40% in one week.

Yet working from home isn't just a technology challenge. Employees often suffer mental health problems, including anxiety, stress, and depression; feelings of isolation; and slippery boundaries between work and life. Leaders can help: Reinforcing the team identity and mission are positive employee experience moves that can raise morale.

The best way to manage through this crisis is to recognize the irreplaceable value of your employees. For some companies, keeping the workforce in place might be possible. Disney closed its theme parks but is choosing to continue to pay its cast members. Apple is paying its employees during the closure of its Apple Stores. Not every company has Disney or Apple's deep pockets, but approaches like transparency and putting employee safety above profits will go a long way.

Ultimately, your strategy must center around trust. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, employees trust their employers more than they trust the government, and 69% trust their employer to respond effectively and responsibly to the pandemic. Nearly half of US workers are concerned the government won't take strong enough steps, so employers bear a heavy trust burden. Now is the time to prove the trust they've placed in you is merited.

Give employees the right tools to get their jobs done safely, whether collaboration software for those at home or masks and gloves for frontline workers. Offer frequent updates on policies and the well-being of employees. And adapt policies, as Trader Joe's did in covering paid sick leave for the first time.

These moves aren't just morally right, they're good business. After the crisis passes, you'll need to recruit employees. "How did your company handle the pandemic?" will be the new recruitment conversation. Candidates will ask about work-from-home, pandemic-specific, and business continuity policies. Keep an eye on this future even as you help your irreplaceably valuable employees through this crisis.

This post was written by Vice President and Principal Analyst J. P. Gownder. 

Editorial standards