How Covid-19 changed our mind about telecommuting
Along with many around the world, I have watched Covid-19 since it was first announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Jan. 11. It was then confined in Hubei province of China, with only 41 positive cases and one death.
As the cases grew and reached other countries, I empathized with those afflicted and began considering how this would impact our island, moreover, the world. Then on Jan. 30, the WHO declared Covid-19 as a “public health emergency of global concern.” Subsequently, on March 11, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. The cases and death toll kept on rising and we witnessed its unstoppable spread and global impact.
On March 15, the first three cases of Covid-19 on Guam were confirmed. On March 20, the governor of Guam announced her first Covid- 19 executive order to shut down non-essential businesses and social gatherings. Two days later, a state of emergency is declared for Guam.
As of April 15, there were 1.8 million total cases and 117,217 deceased globally, according to WHO. It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or observed. It is undeniable that the impact this will have on society is long-lasting.
Covid-19 has fundamentally changed our society in so many ways. For many of us, our memories will be categorized as “before Covid-19” and “after Covid-19.”
The outbreak has taught us many things: what our medical infrastructure and government emergency operations are capable of; appreciating health and understanding that the health of one can impact the health of an entire community.
The outbreak has also changed our perspective on how we work. It has challenged the business model of requiring employees who are non-customer facing to work on site. Social distancing mandates from our islands’ governors forced many businesses to resort to telecommuting for office workers. These office workers have been able to maintain operations and the crisis has taught us that there are many tools available to make telecommuting successful.
Even before the temporary closure of nonessential services, telecommuting and remote work was increasing nationally. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 close to 24 percent of all employed persons worked at home on an average day. This includes employees who worked from home full-time and partially.
Telecommuting is becoming more and more practiced. Data from the BLS shows that between 2005 to 2015, the number of employees telecommuting in the U.S. increased by 115 percent. Originally seen as a way to appease the millennials, as technology advanced and mindsets changed, telecommuting is now viewed as a reliable and viable work structure.
Employers are realizing that telecommuting can benefit both the businesses and employees. Telecommuting can reduce the overhead costs of maintaining a physical office, including utilities, janitorial services, rent and more.
In a recent annual survey done by FlexJobs (a job service that specializes in remote employment), 65 percent of respondents said they are more productive due to few distractions and interruptions, less stress from commuting, minimal office politics, and a personalized, quiet environment.
Another interesting takeaway from FlexJobs’ survey is that remote workers took fewer sick days, most likely due to having less exposure to germs and bacteria in a typical office environment. Plus, there is less stress associated with working at home.
Are telecommuters just as productive as traditional office workers? A two-year case study completed in 2017 by an economics professor at Stanford University found that the answer is yes. The case study also found that employee attrition among telecommuters decreased by 50 percent.
It’s also important to note that by decreasing the need to commute every day, remote working helps minimize workers’ carbon footprints. Before the pandemic, employers were already accustomed to some kind of remote work or telecommuting, like an employee calling in to a meeting because he or she is traveling; working with clients in different countries; or working with office satellites or branches on a different island or continent.
However, many businesses have not taken the step of establishing telecommuting practices as an option. There’s the mentality that if you don’t see someone with your own eyes, you can’t truly know if they are working.
The crisis has shown that, yes, you truly can work at home and be productive and efficient, especially with the right tools. These tools are reasonably priced, are easy to learn to use, and can be used on a computer, mobile phone, laptop, or tablet. All you need is reliable internet or data.
Teleconferencing has been an essential tool for telecommuting and remote work. A teleconferencing application that we heard more about in the last couple of months is Zoom.
Zoom offers a free basic package which allows up to 100 participants in a video conference for 40 minutes, with an unlimited number of group meetings and unlimited one-to-one meetings. Packages for additional features like recording functionality or adding more participants range from $14.99 to $19.99 a month.
A very solid option for teleconferencing is Microsoft Teams, which is included in the Microsoft suite package and integrates the features of Skype For Business. With Microsoft Teams, users can share their screen for collaboration or presentations, record the meeting, and chat. A free version is also available.
Productivity and project management tools, like Trello, Wrike and Asana help organizations keep track of tasks and projects. These tools offer free services as well packages for additional features like more storage or more users. All of these services are available on desktop and mobile.
What about working together on spreadsheets and documents? There’s an app for that, too. Google Docs and Google Sheets allow multiple users to work on a single document in real time, track each change made, and track who made the change. The free version will meet all the needs of a business and all you need is a Gmail account.
If anything, the biggest challenge of telecommuting is getting employees to follow established teleconferencing etiquette. (We all have that one coworker whose family or pet is always interrupting, that types too loudly, or breathes heavily.)
That being said, there are some things employers and workers can do to improve the telecommuting experience. Employers need to choose the right tools for teleconferencing, project management and collaborating. They need to provide the right technology and set up clear policies and work structures. For their part, workers must focus on being productive. Workers should consider having a dedicated work space that minimizes distractions and interruptions. They should keep organized and have a routine.
Both employers and workers should realize that communication is crucial. It’s a two-way street. Employers must communicate their expectations. Workers must communicate progress. Both should check in with each other from time to time to make sure that details have not been overlooked.
Our current crisis has disrupted the traditional workplace as we know it. For many, telecommuting has become the way of life. At the end of the day we all have a job to do. Today’s technology makes it easier for us to do that job, whether we do it from headquarters or from our home office.
— Jay R. Shedd is senior director of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.