Although video conferencing and virtual work technology have been advancing and becoming more popular for years, the COVID- 19 pandemic is throwing many businesses and employees into the deep end of remote work—and it's sink or swim.
Organizations have been working toward remote work for the past 20 years to varying degrees of success, said Raymond Henry, associate dean for faculty affairs and chair of the department of information systems at Cleveland State University. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a quarter of wage and salary workers work at home at least occasionally.
"But this complete virtual, what organizations have found is that they're not really ready for that," Henry said. "The tools have advanced but it really takes some adaptation and getting used to it. Right now, I think organizations are really diving into the deep end out of necessity."
In an ideal world, individuals and employers would have been able to properly prepare for a massive shift to virtual work. But in this case, many are scrambling because they didn't have structured processes and procedures in place for working remotely, said Erin Makarius, associate professor of management at the University of Akron, who has been researching virtual work for more than five years.
Building and maintaining trust through active communication and feedback in a virtual work environment is really important and also can be difficult when people aren't talking face-to-face as much, Makarius said. Establishing guidelines and expectations around communication also is key, such as simply noting that you need a reply within a certain time frame or letting someone know you're thinking about what they sent and will get back with an answer.
A lot of these adjustments are happening in real time, said Michael Goldberg, executive director of the Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University and an associate professor of design innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case.
"I think I'm seeing folks sort of making the transition, and I think the way that we use these platforms and tools keeps evolving based on our experience every day," he said.
Finding the right tools
When looking at remote working tools, businesses will have to consider communication tools, such as the video conferencing and teleconferencing services, which many vendors are offering expanded access to through discounted or free trials or other upgrades in response to the pandemic.
Collaboration tools that allow employees to share documents and collaborate on projects are also key to remote work, Henry said. Collaboration tools are often already in place in offices, which typically have some level of virtual work. Some tools are synchronous, in which two employees work at the same time on a project, while others are asynchronous.
"And both of them are useful, and important, and it's just figuring out what works for the particular situation," Henry said. "So much of this is context dependent."
Makarius also noted that managing the technology to the task in virtual work is important. A quick question can be relayed via text or chat, but a discussion or a decision that needs to be made might require a video or phone call to have more immediate back and forth interaction.
"I don't think that there's one tool that's the be all, end all for virtual work, and I think it really depends on the company and the job itself," Makarius said.
The conferencing tools and remote work software tend to be pretty "robust" in their ability to handle the large increase in workers using them, Henry said. Technical problems are more likely to arise on a case-by-case basis depending on an employee's internet speed or network connection.
For families who now have children at home taking online classes, streaming videos or gaming, they might have to set some boundaries to ensure their network can handle everyone's activities.
"It is interesting because I think many of us who aren't used to kind of like working from home probably hadn't battle tested our home networks," Goldberg said. "Before you've got your important work call or before your kids are going online for their classes, test everything. Test the microphone, test the video camera, test the connectivity before you really need it."
Jim Hornyak started J.W. Hornyak Videoconferencing and Telecommunications in 2001. The Independence company is a vendor for Zoom, a video conferencing tool, and supports its clients with equipment for conference rooms.
As the pandemic has relocated workers to their homes, Hornyak said he's seen an increase in requests from existing clients adding subscriptions and equipment or seeking more licenses.
"I think what this crisis is going to do, my theory is going forward, people are going to go, 'Gee, it wasn't bad meeting virtually. I kind of like this,' " he said. "And now they're going to start thinking, 'Maybe I should make more sales calls on it.' "
A culture of grace
Makarius encourages companies to promote respectful engagement during this time of uncertainty in the world.
"Maybe don't expect the same levels of engagement as before," she said.
Employees are juggling a lot: Adjusting to a new remote work environment and new ways of communicating as they manage distractions at home, such as figuring out how to homeschool their children or care for elderly family members—all while dealing with the emotional and cognitive distraction of understanding the pandemic and everything happening in the world.
"I think it's important to remember when we think about expectations that this is not business as usual," Makarius said. "We really have to be realistic and build grace into the culture, trying to understand the big situation everyone's facing and provide support however possible."
Before a meeting or class starts, there's often idle chitchat as co-workers and students ask about each other's weekends or plans for that evening. Goldberg said he's trying to maintain that space by making himself available before and after his classes for students who have questions or just want to talk. He recommends businesses create that same opportunity for informal conversation.
From running into a colleague in the hallway to the infamous water cooler talk, working from home eliminates these spontaneous interactions.
"And not only do these informal discussions help build relationships, but they also tend to spur ideas, enhance creativity and to really improve collaboration, so they can be vital for performance in the workplace as well," Makarius said.
Companies can provide opportunities to maintain those relationships through virtual coffee chats, an open channel to discuss what people are working on or dealing with at home, a virtual pizza party or delivering care packages to employees, she said.
The promise of remote work has always been flexibility, Henry said. Work doesn't have to always mean arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving at 5 p.m. Working virtually gives some power back to individual workers to, for example, take a couple of hours in the day to care for their children, and make that time up in the evenings. But that can create discord between schedules.
"The flexibility is I can take two hours to take care of my kid who's home as well," Henry said. "Well, if somebody says that two hours isn't my two hours, so I need you to answer this question now, that creates potential conflict."
The flexibility of virtual meetings also means that they can happen at any time and risk encroaching on other parts of life. When employees aren't driving to and from the office, they risk losing that separation of work time and home/family time. They start to co-mingle. It's critical that employees set and communicate clear expectations.
"It feels like we've got a big chunk of time ahead here," Goldberg said. "I think that the habits that we put in place now with our colleagues, with our employees, with our people we work for, with our families, we really need to be mindful of, this could be a while. You've gotta work with these people and live with these people going forward, so how do you do it? How do you put in place good practices that allow you to get your work done and sort of maintain work-life balance?"