Coronavirus: five tips on running a remote working drill

Firms have been running work from home tests in preparation for enforcing such arrangements as the crisis worsens. Here’s how to get this right

As the threat from coronavirus increases, employers around the world have been running remote working tests. For example, Coca-Cola Company asked all employees at its worldwide headquarters in Atlanta to work remotely last Tuesday (10 March), while Vodafone NZ last week (12 March) announced it was pleased overall with the results of a massive work from home drill, which saw 1,200 of 2000 staff work remotely. In the UK, MediaCom, the nation’s largest media agency, announced it would be trialling all employees working from home on Friday 13 March. 

So as the UK potentially moves closer to a lockdown, all employers have been urged to stress-test their capacity to eventually oblige staff to work from home. People Management offers some top tips on running such a drill:

Run home-working tests as soon as possible

The situation is moving very rapidly and businesses need to move quickly in terms of testing and checking the resilience of their remote working systems, says Jonathan Hemus, managing director of Insignia Crisis Management. “In this situation, the clock is ticking before even more significant restrictions are put in place,” he warns. “It is critical organisations act now and do that testing and planning, because you don’t want to find out that what you thought would probably work doesn’t actually work in practice.”

Choose teams at random

Alastair Woods, partner in PwC's people and organisation practice, says as a minimum employers should ask teams or individuals to work from home at random to find out where there might be challenges and take steps to address them. “For most of my clients, they have asked individuals where working from home is possible to be put in a team at random and then that [team] spends the next week at home,” Woods explains. This way, employers can test their workforce’s capacity to work remotely in stages.

“For others, there will be certain teams where the nature of their work makes home working slightly easier, and companies may send those teams home entirely,” says Woods.

Make sure drills test IT system capability

Ranjit Dhindsa, partner and head of employment at Fieldfisher, says many of her clients were conducting audits to see what technology staff needed to operate completely digitally. Part of this means shutting down offices to run drills to see if IT systems or other internal servers can handle remote working. IT departments also need to test their capacity to ensure they are set up to handle the extra technical support their workforces would likely need, she says.

Drills should also focus on testing whether those working remotely would have sufficient phone signal and wifi to be productive if eventually forced to work from home for long periods, she adds: “The challenges will be individuals working in areas of poor reception, or where wifi slows because of the volumes.”

Ensure staff have the right equipment ahead of running the drill

A good rule of thumb just generally at the moment is to ask staff to take equipment home each night that would allow them to work from home the next day if suddenly required to do so, says Dhindsa. This would also ensure employees’ readiness to test their capacity to work remotely if notified that morning that a drill was taking place.

For staff with laptops, this process should be relatively straightforward, and has been happening for “a few weeks now and has been normalised”, says Dhindsa. For those who don’t, employers should consider now whether they need to send ‘home office kits’ to employees containing headsets, screens and other pieces of equipment, says Woods. 

Employers must also test equipment that will allow staff to maintain more personal contact with each other when working from home longer term, says Hemus. “In an ideal world, everybody should have access to video conferencing, and the camera should be turned on because we all know emails are very cold,” he says, adding: “I would encourage employers to make sure that face-to-face contact, albeit virtual, is part of what they put in place because it makes a huge difference.”

Remind staff of data protection and GDPR-related policies 

Most employers will already have data protection and flexible working policies in place, but Dhindsa says it is critical employers communicate the importance of such practices. “There are multiple policies that need to dovetail together and that a good employer should already have an avenue to put in place now, which will guide how you work at home,” Dhindsa says. These include policies about confidentiality, keeping work property safe, having IT facilities at home and health and safety.

Dhindsa stresses it isn’t about creating new rules but reminding staff of existing policies, which could be communicated through existing channels: “It’s about using staff newsletters or emails to stress that staff shouldn’t be transferring stuff to their personal devices without permission, storing and encrypting sensitive data and being careful who you share it with.”