In the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, our working lives changed beyond recognition. Companies across the globe responded swiftly to mandatory work-from-home orders. They figured out in real-time how to manage a distributed workforce and continue clear communication with their teams.
Many governments are now starting to ease restrictions. And it seems highly likely that remote work will continue. The U.S. government’s guidelines on “Opening Up America Again” state that employers must:
“Continue to encourage telework, whenever possible and feasible with business operations.”
A short period of “emergency” working from home is one thing. A longer-term shift towards a more modern workplace needs deliberate change. It requires strategic planning. And it all needs to happen immediately.
As we move into new phases, many business leaders will have unanswered key questions. How should you prepare your organization for the return to work in this ‘new normal’? How will you enable remote employees to collaborate effectively? What new processes must you put in place? What tools will teams need? How will you shift mindset, as well as policy?
How (and why) to make remote working ‘work’
The COVID-19 crisis forced remote work on most of us. Previously, only a small percentage of organizations had embraced the concept. In 2018, 3.6% of U.S. employees spent at least half their time working from home. So, for the vast majority of businesses, an entirely remote workforce was a new experience. Whatever your position before the pandemic, there are many advantages to remote working. Beyond curbing the spread of a virus. Some major benefits are:
- Reduced travel for business. More cost-effective, and better for the environment.
- Lower operational costs for businesses.
- Wider talent pool. Companies are able to recruit from outside their offices’ commutable distances.
- More attractive to future employees. The International Workplace Group found that “80% of job seekers would choose a job with a flexible work-from-home policy over one that doesn’t offer the same benefit”.
- More flexible working options for employees. Especially crucial for people with disabilities and those with caring responsibilities.
Remote work also presents several operational challenges. The Financial Times quotes Dan Elron, a consultant for Accenture:
“A lot of companies are finding that they have not yet developed business practices that allow for seamless working in a remote environment. The business practices and applications are not designed for distributed employees.”
This particularly affects communications and content creation, as they now take place remotely company-wide. For example, in the health insurance industry, End of Benefit letters are often written by the Claims team. And in retail banking, the Operations department is most likely to make decisions about opening hours following the lockdown. Will they also be responsible for communicating changes to customers? If so, we need to consider whether they have the right information and tools to do so remotely.
Content collaboration while remote working
Employees will be used to the “old ways” of sharing information and working together:
- Visiting colleagues’ offices or desks.
- Holding face-to-face meetings, whether planned or ad hoc.
- Setting up war rooms for crisis communications.
- Showing each other work in a physical format, making amends using pen and paper.
So how does this all translate when we’re working from home? Remote employees need clear policies and work structures to support them, as well as the right technology. We’ve come up with three steps to set you on the right path.
Share your style guide
If you haven’t already, share your written style guide with anyone working on customer communications. Go beyond the obvious content creators. Think of Operations, Customer Service, HR, Product. Consider different types of content and communications. Terms and conditions. Letters of Intent. Privacy Policies. New opening times and service delivery methods.
It’s important to ensure that the right people understand the principles behind your style guide. And can put it into practice. Otherwise, you’re jeopardizing your company’s single tone of voice. And that could alienate customers.
Simplify your copy. Identify readability issues as you type. Improve the quality of your communications.
Adapt your processes to enable remote work
Make sure that your workflows for creating communications are fit for remote working. For example, you’ll want to build a way for team members to give feedback online.
You might choose to collaborate in a shared document, where you can see comments from colleagues side-by-side. Or use a chat app to gather comments quickly and in real-time. And there may be even less time than usual to prepare customer communications. For example, if the government suddenly announces a change in guidelines, businesses will need to react quickly.
There are also likely to be even more communications than usual at this time. Let’s take an example from the Consumer Banking world. As we previously mentioned, the Operations team will need to communicate new in-store opening hours. As well as new practices around safety and social distancing. At the same time, Private Banking teams might be keen to send messages around the status of customers’ investments. If you fail to consider the customer’s entire journey, you risk bombarding them with communications. Your customers won’t know which messages are of the highest priority and might get confused or turn off altogether. Anxieties are already high – it’s even more important to communicate clearly in times of crisis.
Bring in the right solutions to support remote work
Fast Company predicts that “remote tools will become standard, even among non-remote staff”. You probably can’t work remotely without adopting some of the following tools:
- Video conferencing
- Instant messaging
- Project management
- File sharing
These services will allow you to collaborate on your communications strategy, and follow your workflow from start to finish.
VT Insights and VT Writer support your employees in creating clear communications that are also in your tone of voice. The solution can hold your written style guide. This makes it easy for any writer to follow the brand rules. Whichever team your writer is from, the solution will prompt him to make his work clear, readable and on-brand.
Measure the effectiveness of your plain language program
The future is (partly) remote
Remote working allows many companies to continue working through this next stage of the pandemic. It’s playing a crucial role in keeping the economy moving. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that remote work saved U.S. businesses $30 Billion dollars per day during the COVID-19 crisis. This is due to productivity that would have been otherwise lost due to office closures. The same research shows that “a typical employer can save about $11,000 per year for every person who works remotely half of the time.” And indicates that “25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.” A recent Gartner survey of Chief Financial Officers suggests similar results. That “74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post-COVID 19.”
And it’s not just a question of cost savings. There are undeniable benefits for the environment, employees’ work-life balance, and general productivity. Office life isn’t obsolete, but the “remote” trend is likely to continue well into the decade. Certainly beyond the pandemic. Now is a great time to assess your work-from-home provision, and make sure your business is ready for the change.