woman at desk looking at her desktop computer (Photo: Shuttestock)

Modern workers want flexibility in where they work and how they get things done. To attract and retain them, HR organizations the world over have been dabbling in remote work. Then COVID-19 hit. And things got serious.

The global pandemic has, in essence, created a forced experiment. Organizations that may have been reticent to consider remote work have come face-to-face with a situation that now requires it.

Remote work is not business as usual. It is perhaps the biggest change in the way businesses operate that many of us have ever seen. It represents a totally new way of thinking and operating and can be a difficult adjustment for employees and employers to make. When things become uncertain, it becomes even harder.

But business must go on as usual, even in times of crisis. And this is where HR can step up and make a difference. Here's how:

1. View things through an empathetic lens

We all know that talent is what makes business go and enables companies to succeed. In uncertain times, the role of the HR team is to see things through a lens of empathy – to be the voice of employees, and anticipate the challenges and opportunities they are facing, and develop plans, programs and information to overcome and optimize them.

It all starts with creating a sense of safety, well-being, security and stability – not only for employees, but their families and loved ones – and providing resources to ensure their physical, mental and financial wellbeing. When natural disasters and public health emergencies occur, employees may not be able to physically get to an office. And this is where remote work can be of value.

The hope is that employees and their families can stay safe and healthy working from home. But as we are seeing with COVID-19, there may be situations where some employees cannot work for periods of time or cannot work their typical hours or schedules due to family matters or other extenuating circumstances. And they may become anxious and disengaged.

We recognized this at Citrix and extended our time-off and pay continuation support to help decrease uncertainty around the pandemic and instill a sense of calm. Under the extensions, employees will receive 100 percent of their base pay through April 30 if:

  • They become ill due to COVID-19
  • Their children or family members become ill due to COVID-19 and require care from the employee
  • Their manager says the job cannot be performed at home, and they therefore cannot work
  • They have children or family members at home due to COVID-19-related social distancing practices and are unable to find an alternate caregiver and fully work.

We have also committed to our vendors who provide labor to us that we will continue to pay under our existing contracts through April 30, allowing them to pay workers during this same time period.

2. Put things in context

Building a remote work culture requires putting things into context. Employees need to understand up front how working remote will enable the company to weather the down times and position it to succeed in the good – and the important role they play in both.

Remote work offers a variety of benefits for employees. Of 5,000 workers across the United States who participated in a study conducted by OnePoll,

  • 69 percent say working remote would enable them to be more productive and focused
  • 83 percent think it would enable them to strike a healthier work-life balance
  • 77 percent indicated they could save money by reducing commuting costs

Remote work can drive larger economic benefits as well. According to a study conducted by the Centre of Economics and Business Research (Cebr), flexible work models can not only help companies attract talent, but increase employee engagement and productivity, potentially boosting the US economy by as much as $2.36 trillion a year.

3. Change the mindset

Research shows remote work can actually improve productivity. According to the Cebr research,

  • 93 percent of workers polled said virtual/remote working would enable them to manage their time more effectively and devote extra hours to work tasks.
  • 68 percent of part-time workers indicated it would allow them to get more work done as they would spend less time commuting.

But if managers believe that employees are only productive when they can see them, developing a remote work culture is going to be difficult. To change the mindset, HR needs to be clear about the goals and measures of success for remote work and communicate successful outcomes.

If the company continues to perform financially after implementing a more flexible work arrangement, that's a great outcome. If engagement scores rise and turnover fall, those are excellent signs of the impact.

4. Be patient

Culture change doesn't happen overnight. It's a gradual, nuanced journey that is the result of alignment across leadership, purposeful decisions, formal and informal demonstration of desired behaviors throughout all levels of the company. Leaders must be empowered to decide what's right for their team.

We've worked to avoid setting a mandate, to be clear about options available for remote and flexible work based on role, and to challenge managers and employees to build their skill in leading and being part of remote teams.

5. Give employees the space and tools to succeed

There are plenty of productivity issues that get in the way in the office. And they can be magnified when working from home. To set employees up for success, it's essential to provide a digital work space that has all of the tools and data a person needs, a physical work space that fits individual work styles, and a vibrant culture with a sense of trust and community.

There are a lot of best practices out there, but there's not a one-size-fits-all solution. It all comes down to designing solutions for the context of the organization.

Every company – and employee – is different has unique requirements and needs. And it's really about behaviors and strong, two-way conversations between employees and managers about what works and doesn't work.

You can have the best technology in the world. But if you don't provide employees with resources to help them make the adjustment, they won't use it and continue to engage and be productive. And this includes things like sharing tips on setting up a home office and providing flexible schedules to accommodate family responsibilities. Leveraging video conferencing and chat apps to drive richer communications. Hosting virtual office hours where employees can drop in on their managers like they would if they were in a physical location to ask questions or just vent.

6. Seize the opportunity

Within every challenge lies an opportunity. Including the COVID-19 crisis. The same investments companies are making in remote work today can help them be more agile to take advantage of new business and market opportunities in the future.

Take the University of Sydney. When COVID-19 first hit in China, they had more than 14,000 students who were unable to get home due to imposed travel bans. They turned to digital workspace solutions to provide access to the applications and data their China-based staff and students need to continue teaching and learning from the comfort and safety of their residences. And they were all up and running in a matter of days. Going forward, this same technology could be used to reach new students that the university couldn't reach before.

7. Embrace the new normal

The world has definitely changed. And remote work may in fact be the new normal.  Embrace the change. And build a culture around it in which your employees are empowered with the tools, confidence and trust they need to adapt and thrive.

Donna Kimmel is the Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer of Citrix. She is responsible for all aspects of identifying, fostering and developing top talent as well as overseeing organizational strategies that maximize engagement and position the company to win in the marketplace. With more than 30 years of experience in creating and implementing successful global talent programs that drive business results, Donna is a trusted Human Resources leader who believes in creating diverse and engaged teams that enable the extraordinary.