Coronavirus and massive remote work: are Belgian companies ready?

13 March 2020 | Coronavirus

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

By : Marine Lhomel,

In case of quarantine, companies will be forced to maintain their activities by facilitating remote work at a very large scale. Besides all other operational issues, will they be able to overcome technical, organizational and cultural challenges raised by massive remote work?

To be featured in this article:

The preparation to crisis management

All companies are likely to go through crisis at certain moments in their history. Many of them say they are ready to face it. Nonetheless – and despite their intent to deliver reassuring messages – tension gets more and more tangible as a national quarantine shadow lingers over our heads.

  • Anticipation – Preparation to crisis management is a touchy exercise which fluctuates between anticipation and unpredictability. When starting a crisis plan, companies tend to consider scenarios that are the most likely to happen and to develop actions and infrastructures aimed to meet unsatisfied needs: this is the anticipative part of crisis management. In this context, each industry can rely on its own track record, sector specificities and constraints (legal, technical, regulatory, etc.). The “Seveso risk” is a very good example of it.
  • Unpredictability – Yet, and despite all the measures that are taken by the company, there will always be unpredictable events and uncertainties. Any crisis management professional will tell you that it is impossible for an organization, even the powerful ones, to be prepared for any eventuality, from the most insignificant (a priori) like sick animals in a small Chinese village to the most extreme, like the 09/11 terrorist attacks.

When the crisis leads to ad hoc arrangements

The coronavirus outbreak is a perfect illustration of the unpredictability of a crisis. If companies have designed strategies and implemented plans to ensure the continuity of their activities, many of them have not considered that they would have to do it remotely, in an isolated manner and during an undefined period of time. A quarantine disrupts organizations in their structure, their culture but also at the individual level: each of us becomes responsible for the company’s future.

In Belgium, and all over the world, different solutions are suggested to take up quarantine challenges. For all the organizations whose activities do not require to physically be at work, homeworking seems to be the most agile way to deal with the crisis.

Remote work: the ultimate solution?

According to a report published by the Federal Public Service for Transport and Mobility (in French) in 2018, the rate of people working from home is usually around 17%. Most of these people, that is to say 12%, work from home at least one day a week. Only 4% declare to work from home at least two days a week.

In these times of crisis, remote work will take another dimension, going from 1 to 5 days a week and from 17% to more than 80% of workers. A huge challenge, companies who employ thousands of people worldwide.

We can find some interesting examples. The European Central Bank (located in Germany) announced on March 8th, 2020, that all its employees (3,700 people) would work from home during one day. The goal of the ECB is clear: they want to test their IT and organizational capacities at a large scale and for an undefined period of time.

Some other players in the sector have tried another approach: alternating homeworking. In Belgium, as from March 16th, 2020, Belfius will start, for all its employees (4,000 people) a weekly team shift to work from home one week in two.

Homeworking issues and limitations

Still in 2020, how can companies possibly be blocked by technical issues related to the massive remote work of their employees? Many factors can be take into account:

  • Budget: the company has not invested on time in its facilities and is now blocked by the lack of immediate financial resources to cover all the expenses related to the improvement of its IT infrastructure.
  • Technical: even if all the employees have a computer they can take home, it cannot be taken for granted that they have an internet connection that will allow them to access the organization’s online systems and collaborative tools installed to maintain collaboration despite isolation.
  • Cultural: paradoxically, at a time when hyperconnectivity makes the balance between professional and personal life even thinner than ever, some companies remain very attached to a working culture based on physical presence and working hours in the office. Typically in this kind of organization, the measures that needed to be taken to provide each employee with a personal computer were not taken on time.
  • Organizational: to “allow” remote work occasionally does not imply the same organizational schemes as the obligation to work remotely everyday. In order to maintain activities in the most efficient way, new specific procedures must be rapidly implemented. Also, each team must define very clear roles and responsibilities for all its members. Last but not least, appropriate collaborative tools must be installed and their usage should be explained to all people who are testing them for the first time. All this needs time,a management should also let go of the control that they want to have on their staff.
  • Operational: not everyone can work from home. This is the case for healthcare professionals, sites managers, laboratory technicians, policemen or firemen. How to limit the exposure of these teams to the virus and how to prevent its spreading?

Phusis has prepared a precise action plan to immediately activate remote collaboration in your teams and offers you a free 60-minute consultation by videoconference to set it up.

Fear clouds judgment

The crisis is here and, as it gets bigger, companies feel that they are losing control of the situation. A state of affairs that, combined with growing uncertainties, plunges leaders and team members into darkness…

What decision to make? How to implement it rapidly? How much will it cost if we make it? How much will it cost if we do not make it? How to be sure that employees will remain efficient and motivated despite individual isolation? What if all the efforts provided to facilitate employees homeworking will be for nothing?

Confidence and resilience: the keys to overcome the crisis together

Studies on crisis management have demonstrated that companies which were dealing best with crisis were those which showed resilience and confidence.

In its global prevention and safety plan, the Brussels Region (in French) relies on resilience as a fundamental principle to face the crisis while preserving an open, inclusive and diverse society. Resilience calls on collective and individual capacity to exploit and reinforce all the resources available (psychological, material, financial, political, human, social, etc.) to make the right decisions, to hold on and to overcome difficulties without jeopardizing its potential development in the long run.

To nurture resilience in companies, leaders must be able to let go and avoid to give in to panic but, overall, they have no other choice but to trust each person who makes the organization. To do so, there is no magic trick: good communications and transparency are required.

Everybody is concerned with this crisis, both professionally and personally. Every one of us deserves to be well informed (and not watched) but also to be invited to contribute, at his/her own level, to design the plan that will allow the organization to cope (and not only to execute the plan).

  • Do you need help to implement a plan that will allow you to maintain your operations despite the quarantine? You want to involve your teams in order to preserve their motivation and efficiency despite isolation? Book a free consultation.
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