The recent outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19 is prompting some governments to close their borders, the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates, and the CDC to urge precautions like handwashing and contact avoidance. But will it induce your boss to ask you to work from home?
If you can do your job from a computer, maybe. In a blog post on Sunday, Twitter announced that it would suspend “all non-critical business travel and events” for its approximately 5,000 employees. On Monday, the company updated the post to say, “Beginning today, we are strongly encouraging all employees globally to work from home if they’re able.”
Other global employers like Microsoft and Chevron have asked employees to work from home to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Apple, Nestle and others have cancelled non-essential business travel and events. Meanwhile, the U.K. is considering a plan that would ask many Brits to work from home for three months.
Depending on the severity of the outbreak, more U.S. employers may follow suit, asking workers to stay home when they’re sick or after traveling to affected areas. Some may even decide to require all staff to work from home. Already, the CDC is recommending “that employers establish ‘nonpunitive’ policies, encouraging employees who are sick or exhibiting symptoms to stay at home,” per The New York Times.
Will You Be Asked to Work From Home?
The number of telecommuters in the U.S. surged 159% between 2005 and 2017, according to a report from FlexJobs and Global Workplace Analytics (GWA). But it’s worth noting that only 3.4% of the U.S. workforce telecommute at least half the time.
Many American workers lack access to remote work options — and many couldn’t work from home, even if their employers were on board. There will always be some jobs that just can’t be done remotely. Unfortunately, many of those jobs involve serving the public — for example, those in food service or hospitality — and that places those workers in a dangerous position during a possible pandemic.
If those workers do get sick, they may find it hard to take time off. Only 55% of American workers have paid time off, which can “exacerbate some infectious disease outbreaks,” according to Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan public health policy group. Federal law doesn’t mandate that employers provide paid sick leave, and low-income workers are less likely to have PTO and access to health care.
“There’s a reason why people are going to work when they or their kids are sick, if they don’t have paid sick days,” says Elise Gould, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, speaking with MarketWatch. “They have to put food on the table and a roof over their head.”
How to Cope With a Sudden Switch to Remote Work
If you do work in an occupation that’s compatible with telecommuting, you may find that your employer is suddenly very willing to let you work from home. But that’s not good news to every worker. Some who prefer to go into the office may find it hard to adjust to the remote-work lifestyle.
“A few of my coworkers were jealous, but I hate working from home,” writes Graham Rapier, a Business Insider reporter who was recently asked to work from home after a trip to Japan. “Distractions are plentiful, company is nonexistent, and there isn’t any free coffee. I cannot emphasize enough the lack of free coffee. There are also some tools, like the Bloomberg Terminal, that we can’t access remotely. I’m sure I will be nagging some coworkers to help me find information.”
Rapier developed some strategies to help him cope with his exile from the physical office, including creating a dedicated workspace and getting outside every day. If you’re in the same boat, you might also try:
- Keeping a regular schedule. Ask anyone who works at home on a regular basis and they’ll tell you: one of the biggest pitfalls of remote work is keeping to a schedule. It’s tempting to multitask by putting in a load of laundry at lunch or procrastinate by scrolling through social media when no one at work can see you. Resist the urge. Be at work while you’re at work.
- Knowing when to quit for the day. On the other hand, it can be hard to know when to end your workday when you live and work in the same space. As much as you can, keep good boundaries between your work life and your personal life. And when it’s time to close the laptop, do it.
- Setting up one-on-ones with the boss. Even if your manager doesn’t usually do regular one-on-ones — and they probably should — it’s a good idea to ask for check-ins while you’re working from home. That way, you’ll know that you’re on track with the team’s goals and your boss will know that you’re working when you say you’re working. Ideally, you would have a conversation about setting up one-on-ones before you started working from home (or immediately after making the transition). When you do, ask your boss how they prefer to communicate. That might mean checking in on Slack at set times, or doing a regular video call, or sending a quick email update at the end of the week.
- Changing up your meeting style. “Remote meetings can be just as productive as those with everyone sitting around a conference table, but they take a little more prep work,” writes Kathryn Vasel at CNN Business. “Circulate an agenda ahead of the meeting so that everyone knows what will be discussed. To avoid people talking over each other or being shy to speak up, set expectations at the start of the meeting.”
- Reaching out to tech support with potential issues. If your company doesn’t usually support working from home, you’re probably going to run into some snags. Talk to your tech support folks as soon as possible to anticipate problems and proactively look for solutions. It’s also a good idea to ask them if there are security issues you should be aware of, before you start reviewing sensitive information from your home office. They should be able to advise you.
What If You Like Working at Home, and Want to Make It the New Normal?
Of course, not everyone looks at working from home as an exile from the bustling office. If you find that you’re more productive, more motivated and just plain happier working from home, you might consider trying to persuade the boss to make it a regular thing.
In that case, the best thing you can do is to excel in your job during this forced trial period:
- Commit to doing your best work. Now is not the time to catch up on your shows or start taking a long nap in the middle of the day. You might get away with it, but you won’t be earning points with your boss — and you’ll need to do so, if you want to make remote work part of your normal work schedule.
- Document your successes and be prepared to share them with your manager. To get the boss’s approval, you’ll have to be able to prove that you were able to hit your goals while working outside the office.
- Know that visibility is important. If your boss can’t physically see you working, you need to make sure they know you’re engaged and productive. That means making sure you’re available through the normal channels, e.g. Slack, email, phone, etc. It also means communicating even more than usual about your projects and achievements. Don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Let the powers that be see that you’re getting stuff done, even during a stressful and challenging time.
A Note for Decision-Makers
“The likelihood that increasing numbers of employees will be unable to work either because they are sick or must care for others means that companies should review their paid time off and sick leave policies now,” write Jeff Levin-Scherz and Deana Allen at Harvard Business Review. “Policies that give employees confidence that they will not be penalized and can afford to take sick leave are an important tool in encouraging self-reporting and reducing potential exposure.”
If you’re a manager or someone with clout in the organization, now is the time to use your influence for good. Encourage humane PTO policies and advocate for flexibility, including allowing employees to work from home where possible. In the short term, you might help your team stay well, which will also prevent the spread of illness both at your company and in their communities. In the long term, you might help change your corporate culture for the better.
Note: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. Although every reasonable effort is made to present current and accurate information, PayScale makes no guarantees of any kind and cannot be held liable for any outdated or incorrect information. For more information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s page on coronavirus.
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