"Five years from now, we may look back and say the winter and spring of 2020 was the beginning of the telecommuting age."

— Alan Crone, Memphis, Tenn. employment attorney this week on WMC Action News 5.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus is pushing businesses around the world into an unprecedented inflection point.

Company culture, leadership, employee experience and digital workplace experiences are now being put to the test. The way many companies work changed overnight. Massive numbers of workforces have gone remote. Travel restrictions have gutted the ability to accomplish certain tasks. Team collaboration, morale support and the ability of executive teams to pivot, and quickly, have seemingly never been more paramount.

Can your organization be empathetic, compassionate, accommodating, flexible and provide a sound technological infrastructure for workers suddenly removed from their physical offices? Can managers adjust to their now distributed teams and accommodate workers dealing with extenuating issues like school cancellations and potential city and state quarantines?

A True Test of Company Culture

“You find out what your culture’s really like,” Paul Miller, CEO and co-founder of the Digital Workplace Group, said in an interview this week with CMSWire over the growing impact of COVID-19 on the workplace. “It's about business continuity. You need to listen to the fact that people are suffering and feeling isolated and scared depending on where they are. And I would say everybody's got a certain level of fear. You've got to become empathetic. Thinking about this concept of the human side of remote work, it's about understanding and building relationships with the people you work with."

Related Article: Is Your Organization Really Listening to Employees?

This Is a 'New Normal'

Miller deemed the business response to the outbreak of COVID-19 as a “fundamental shift in how work happens.” And it’s happening all over. Facebook ordered all employees in Seattle to work from home until March 31. Apple CEO Tim Cook this week told employees at most global offices they could work from home and called this an “unprecedented event” and “challenging moment.” Apple wants to “reduce human density and ensure those teams that are on-site can do their work safely and with peace of mind.” Google this week asked North American employees to work from home.

Cook is one of the many executive leaders around the world being counted on to guide their organizations during a period of major transition.

“I think there's a consensus that this is a fundamental shift in how work happens,” Miller said. “And there is no back to normal. There is a new normal, which will feel different. And we don't yet know what that difference will be like, but it's not going to be the same as it was before."

The onus will be on leadership and people managers to take measures to support employees thrust into working in a way many wouldn’t choose. In terms of change, many workplaces have gone from “gentle foothills” to potential government mandates over how they work, according to Miller. “And by the way, your kids will be there as well, because the schools are closed,” Miller said. “And you’ll need to work in your apartment that's really small and your partner is also doing the same thing. People will be home working remotely in situations of great stress."

Functioning in Time of High Anxiety

How are some organizations adjusting?

Organizations, large and small, are feeling the impact. Morgan Taylor, chief marketing officer for LetMeBank, said his four-employee company felt that human impact closely and therefore made the executive decision to cancel travel plans and continue to have employees work from home. “When you lead a company, you need to value people's mindset over short-term profit,” Taylor said. “Interestingly, that is what will lead to long-term profit, anyway. Rather than put on a tough face and command everyone to carry forth with previously scheduled travel, we had a team meeting, and realized people were nervous about what is to come.”

In addition to canceling all travel plans and continuing working from home, the company also canceled face-to-face meetings scheduled for April and May. “With day-to-day operations, we haven't adjusted much, as we were already fully remote,” Taylor said. “Canceling travel will impact larger negotiations, to be sure. However, with a number of team members who have young children, pregnant spouses and elderly parents, there is simply no amount of money that would be worth the risk of transmission. That is how we keep our company functioning optimally in a time of such anxiety.”

Related Article: The Remote Working Pendulum Swings Again: 9 Lessons Learned

Over-Communicate and Be Available

Another company that made the call to work remotely for the foreseeable future is Dialpad. On March 5, CEO Craig Walker told his 490 employees they’d be working from home. “I believe that the tools exist to allow people to work from anywhere, and this is a great opportunity to put that belief to the test,” Walker said. “In light of everything going on, I didn't think it was right to have my employees spend hours with potentially germ-filled environments, like public transportation, just to sit at a desk in front of a computer. We literally make the tools that allow them to be mobile and productive at the same time. It was time to put our money where our mouth is and see how things go.”

Learning Opportunities

How are they managing the new way of working? Video conferencing is an expectation, meetings need to have clear-set agendas and takeaways, everyone needs to over-communicate their status and responsiveness is required. “Beyond that,” Walker said, “it doesn't matter where or when people are working, as long as the people that need to get in touch with them are able to do so.”

Concerns: Getting Work Done, Losing Social Connections

One of the main challenges Walker has found so far is the general concern that people will take advantage, not get their work done or not be able to demonstrate efficiency. “However,” he said, “I think that this is all solved by quality communication. People are staying in touch and getting the job done. I think so far people are happy to have this opportunity, and it could lead to expanded remote work in the future.”

Other challenges may be a lack of collaboration and communication tools and the loss of the "social" aspect that defines a company's culture. “With all of the options out there, including freebies available, these challenges are definitely surmountable,” he said. “And video conferences are going to be the new water cooler, with people taking a few moments to socialize over video chat before digging into the work at hand. This will help people feel more connected.”

Miller of Digital Workplace Group discussed the concept of social distancing. Humans are social animals not accustomed to being “socially distanced,” he said, even if we choose to work remotely. How long people can stay socially disconnected will be tested, he said. “It's hard,” Miller said, “and we don't really know what the implications are.”

Related Article: Culture and Productivity in  the Era of Remote Work

Meeting the Needs of Every Remote Worker and Team

The COVID-19 outbreak hit close to home for San Jose, Calif.-based 127-employee Splashtop, which has an office in China. As a precautionary measure, the company asked its 25 employees based in that office to work from home for a month, following the Chinese Lunar New Year. “The office was productive even though virtual,” said Mark Lee, CEO and founder of Splashtop. “Only last week employees began returning to the office gradually.”

It is now testing in the other offices to make sure everyone can be productive virtually. Logistics was a big challenge, Lee said. “We are expanding, and that means a lot of new employees, especially in customer-facing roles,” he added. “Ensuring everyone is trained, has adequate support and is aware of their tasks and deliverables was a tough challenge to overcome.”

To ensure remote employees don’t miss out, Splashtop set up a Microsoft Teams channel for ad-hoc conversations. It also went over the requirements of each individual and each team to make sure they had the tools and resources they needed to be a successful, virtual team.

“With a bit of extra effort from everyone to over-communicate, distributed working becomes much more effective,” Lee said. “Setting aside time for individual one-on-ones with remote workers as well as regular team meetings to sync up on activities is important. There also should be a mindset to continually see what is working well and what needs improvement. We also made sure each employee had the right setup to work from home. This includes computers, headsets, right tools/software installed natively for real-time communication with team members.”

Technology Plays a Part, But So Does Emotional Support

Technology will certainly play a huge part in determining success in successfully navigating a new way of work. But tech is just one part.

How leaders, managers and organizations as a whole support employees on many levels will be the ultimate barometers of company culture and employee experience. “You want to make sure you’re providing support and ... checking in regularly with each other,” Miller said. “Not every call needs to be a business-related call. Maybe it’s a call to say, ‘How's it going today?’"