Working from home (WFH) became a global, widespread trend almost overnight during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak early in 2020.
The global need for remote working exploded out of necessity, forcing many organizations and their workers to adopt hastily arranged telecommuting arrangements.
In the aftermath of this trend, many organizations were forced to research:
- What remote working actually means
- How their employees can stay productive and efficient while working remotely
- How to overcome the challenges associated with working from home
- How to manage the virtual workplace
Understanding these topics is essential for any business that wants to maintain normal operations, even if they have a remote workforce.
In this guide, we’ll address these questions – and many more – so that organizations can learn how to stay efficient and effective, whether their workforce is on-site or not.
Working from Home (WFH): A Definition
What is working from home (WFH)?
Quite simply, it means performing one’s job from home.
It is often used interchangeably with related terms, such as:
There are subtle differences between the terms, though. Telecommuting, for instance, implies that an office worker is working remotely from their company.
Remote working, however, can encompass those who don’t have a company office to work from, such as remote contract workers.
Regardless of the situation, working from home has become a very important topic for businesses ever since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020.
WFH, COVID-19, and The Remote Working Explosion
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in early 2020 sent the global economy in a tailspin.
Quarantines, regional lockdowns, and changing company policies suddenly made working from home a necessity.
Workers who had always worked from offices were being forced to work from home. And organizations that had little experience managing a virtual workforce were now being required to implement telecommuting policies, effective immediately.
But at the same time, this meant that those same workers had to…
- Adopt new software and tools
- Learn how to use those tools
- Make changes to their day-to-day lives, as well as their daily work routines
- Learn techniques for staying productive while working remotely
The overnight explosion in remote working likewise left many organizations in a scramble.
Among other things, organizations needed to:
- Create and disseminate telecommuting policies
- Design a virtual workplace that is fully functional
- Adopt technology that enables and supports remote teams
- Ensure that employees are trained on that technology
- Be able to communicate with employees in real-time
These needs have driven many to seek out useful information on remote working, much of which will be covered in this guide.
To start with, let’s look at a few important ideas that are directly related to working from home.
There are a number of important ideas that are directly related to working from home, including:
- Remote working, telecommuting, and teleworking. These terms are often used interchangeably, though each has its own nuance. Remote working, for instance, implies only that workers are working online. Telecommuting implies, though, that on-site employees are working remotely from an organization’s main office.
- The virtual workspace, virtual teams, and the virtual workforce. Virtualizing the workplace means enabling remote work capabilities. A virtual workplace and a virtual team are all fully capable of working remotely: they have the necessary skills, technologies, workflows, and mindset.
- Digital maturity and digital transformation. Digital transformation is a process that helps an organization become more relevant in the digital age. One of the most fundamental aims of digital transformation is helping an organization become more digitally mature. The aim: to improve an organization’s digital capabilities, which includes digital tools, employee skills, and mindsets.
- The digital workplace. The digital workplace includes the virtual workplace, but its mean expands beyond remote working to include digital maturity, digital capabilities, and digital workflows. The digital workplace fully leverages technology and digitally-enabled business practices, such as the virtual workplace, to help improve the organization’s performance as a whole.
Below, we’ll explore how all of these affect the modern organization – and how organizations can implement telecommuting options effectively and efficiently.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about WFH
One of the best ways to better understand remote working is to address some of the most commonly asked questions about working from home, such as…
What are the organizational benefits and drawbacks of working from home?
Working from home, as mentioned, offers a number of benefits for employees, including:
- Reduced stress. It is only natural that people feel comfortable when working from home. They are in an environment that is more comfortable, relaxing, and familiar. In short, “It has all the comforts of home.” For these reasons – not to mention the lack of a commute, which all workers love – working from home can dramatically reduce stress levels.
- Improved productivity. Also, when workers can minimize distractions at home and stay focused, they can dramatically increase productivity. It is worth recognizing, after all, that distractions can also be a problem at work. Constant interruptions, water cooler chats, socialization, and many other office-related distractions can reduce productivity. But when working from home, all those are absent.
- Greater job satisfaction and company loyalty. Studies have also shown that job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, and other factors are also positively affected by remote working. Of course, the same studies also demonstrate that remote working is a double-edged sword (see below for more on the drawbacks to telecommuting).
These benefits translate into organizational benefits, such as:
- Improved workforce output and performance
- Decreased costs associated with office space and employee transportation
- A reduction of social friction and interpersonal conflict
- A workforce that is more digitally savvy and digitally efficient
However, remote working does have its downsides.
- Remote workers are more likely to feel isolated and lonely
- A lack of social interaction can make it more difficult for teams to bond
- Organizational culture can be harder to communicate and maintain
There are certainly ways around these obstacles.
However, with the right approach, these downsides can be mitigated or even avoided completely.
Should every organization let its employees work from home?
Ultimately, every organization should choose for itself whether remote working is appropriate or not.
We have already seen the advantages that come with remote working.
But do these advantages suggest that every business should virtualize its workforce?
In some cases, remote working may not fit with an organization’s business model or its vision – after all, colocation does have its advantages.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak also demonstrated another unexpected benefit to remote working: organizational flexibility.
Whether or not a business wants its workforce to be permanently virtual, the outbreak made it clear that remote working can help an organization stay resilient during natural disasters and times of crisis.
Even if an organization doesn’t want a virtual workforce, there are few downsides to ensuring that a workforce is capable and ready of remote working.
How do businesses create a great WFH program?
An effective remote working program requires several components, including:
- Policies and procedures. These will define the protocols and expectations around the remote work program. That is, it should explain expectations around the quality of work, hours, communication standards, software, and other relevant telecommuting procedures.
- Digital tools. Digital tools needed for remote workers include not only the main software they use for their jobs, but also communication tools and other telecommuting software. The effectiveness and efficiency of a virtual workplace depends on, among other things, the effectiveness of its technology stack. It is important, therefore, to adopt digital tools that enable workers to collaborate and communicate as seamlessly as if they were in the same office space.
- Digital training and skills. Digital tools are only useful if employees have the skills to use those tools. Training is therefore essential. But to train effectively, organizations should adopt modern training solutions that can operate effectively in a virtual workplace. Digital adoption platforms (DAPs), for instance, can provide practical on-the-job training for employees, whether they are working remotely or on-site.
- Telecommuting skills. Working from home is slightly different from working in an office. The social atmosphere is gone, and workers must learn how to work alone. Though this can free one from certain types of distractions, it can also introduce other distractions, such as pets or family members. And telecommuting can also be lonely and isolating. To address these obstacles, employees must not only learn software, they must also learn how to stay healthy, sane, and productive while telecommuting.
- A virtual workplace management function. Virtual teams must be managed, just as in-house workers are managed. However, the emphasis will differ slightly. Managing remote workers will require less of an emphasis on social dynamics, and more attention on results, performance, communication, and so forth. Though trust and behavior still play a role in virtual teams, the dynamics are decidedly different since workers are not colocated.
With all of these in place, an organization can ensure that its employees are ready and willing to work from home.
WFH Software, Platforms, and Technology
Every business function requires the right stack of technology, and telecommuting is no exception.
Next, we’ll look at some of the most important technologies to have when employees need to work from home.
Digital Adoption Platforms (DAPs)
To stay productive and effective, workers need the right tools – and the right skills – to do their job.
As mentioned, both are of equal importance, since without skills, employees cannot actually use a tool, let alone become productive with it.
However, remote workers face a different challenge than on-site employees.
Without IT or technical support standing by, they need guidance that can be provided on-demand.
Digital adoption platforms (DAPs) provide users with interactive, in-product training that is completely automated and contextually relevant.
Businesses that use them can generate performance boosts across a number of areas:
- Employees become more productive in less time. Normally, when users need to learn how to use software, they must research the answer themselves or contact technical support. Both scenarios are time-consuming and cognitively taxing. And in each case, employees become more exhausted over time, which decreases productivity, engagement, and ultimately their proficiency levels.
- In-app training improves engagement, motivation, and confidence. When employees no longer have to expend so much effort researching problems themselves, they can focus instead on their work. Just-in-time information delivery keeps them productive and proficient, which also boosts motivation and confidence.
- Technical support costs are reduced. The less that employees need to call technical support, the lower the technical support costs will be. This benefits both employees as well as the technical support staff, who often have to play the role of software trainer.
The features of these platforms include:
- In-app guidance. Contextualized, in-app guidance uses on-screen bubbles and tips to show users exactly how to complete specific tasks, directly within the software application. Since this information is provided on-demand, users can apply it immediately, which improves knowledge retention and productivity.
- Interactive product walkthroughs. Software walkthroughs take users one step at a time through a series of actions. Pop-up tips point out which actions should be taken and when – and since users perform the actions themselves, they can “learn by doing.” This greatly simplifies the training process, which accelerates learning while still simplifying the learning process.
- Software analytics. Digital adoption platform analytics can be used to track how people interact with a software program. Their behavior offers a great deal of insight into their learning needs, their mistakes, and so forth. All of that information can then be used to further improve training programs.
- Communication broadcasts. Certain digital adoption platforms, such as WalkMe’s platform, can be used to communicate directly and immediately with an entire user base. It can, for instance, be used to send out priority messages or desktop pop-ups that keep the workforce engaged and informed.
The effective use of digital adoption platforms can transform a virtual workforce, dramatically increasing performance and creating a much smoother, more efficient digital workplace.
Communication tools are especially important for the remote workforce, since interpersonal communication in an office context is out of the question.
There are quite a few types of communication tools out there, all of which have their own place.
Here are a few examples:
- Workplace chat apps. Workplace chat apps, such as Slack, allow teams and work groups to chat about work-related topics. They are ideal for communication and discussion, but not necessarily for task- or project-oriented communications. For that, it is best to make use of project management or task management tools.
- Project and task management tools. Project management tools are designed to coordinate the execution of a project from start to finish. They break down projects into stages, timelines, work groups, and more – and they include important communication functions throughout, including chat and commenting capabilities.
- Productivity apps that integrate into communication tools. Chat apps such as Slack have become enormously popular in recent years. And while they undeniably help people stay productive, the sheer amount of information coming through a single Slack account can be overwhelming. Fortunately, certain Slack apps can help filter out irrelevant notifications, gamify chats, and more.
- Conferencing applications. Conferences are still required, even for remote workers. Conferencing apps such as Zoom allow virtual teams to hold video conferences in real-time, regardless of location. Since meetings and conferences are indispensable for a business, it is clear that conferencing apps are also indispensable.
There are also certain apps that allow workers to collaborate on specific types of projects, such as word processing or graphic design.
Generally speaking, each organization will define a specific set of required communication tools that its remote workers should use to communicate and collaborate.
The ultimate aim should be to completely remove communication deficiencies and allow employees to communicate and collaborate seamlessly across multiple channels and applications.
HR platforms are umbrella platforms that perform a wide variety of HR functions.
They can help HR staff streamline…
- HR requests
Among many other things.
Many of them also include important communication tools, such as employee surveys.
A good HR platform can, in short, make a big difference when it comes to managing employees.
Automation is one of the best ways to reduce inefficiencies in the workplace.
At its highest level of sophistication, automation can be used to replace entire business processes and even automate certain cognitive processes.
When working from home, however, employees can use very simple tools to automate, improve productivity, and streamline their workflows.
Zapier and IFTTT, for example, allow users to create a vast range of automated processes, which can all be used to improve and increase workplace efficiency.
- Emails that meet certain criteria can be used to trigger smartphone notifications
- Tweets that match a certain category can be compiled into a daily email digest
- Alert users via Slack when a new card is added to a Trello board
There are potentially endless applications and use cases for these automation tools, making them ideal add-ons for any workplace – virtual or physical.
Teaching Employees Tips for Working from Home Effectively
It is naturally in every organization’s best interest to keep its workforce operating effectively and efficiently. One of the best ways to do this is to train them on a few best practices.
Here are a few tips and strategies that can keep employees sane, healthy, and productive when working from home:
Encourage employees to maintain a dedicated workstation
Though not necessary for all remote workers, a dedicated workstation can be a very useful way for employees to concentrate and minimize external distractions.
Virtual workstations – wherever they are located – should…
- Have the necessary equipment. The right equipment may simply mean a laptop and a cell phone. However, it is imperative that employees have everything they need to perform their job as effortlessly as if they were at the office. After all, a lack of equipment can hinder productivity and, ultimately, the entire team.
- Be connected to the internet. An internet connection is vital for online collaboration, communication, video conferencing, file sharing, and countless other online work tasks. Ideally, the internet connection should be fast and reliable. Of course, in circumstances where employees don’t regularly collaborate online, they may not need a connection that is reliable or robust.
- Have some form of separation with the outside environment. Boundaries play a big role in our psychology. Having a clear boundary between a workstation and the external environment helps people get into the proper mindset and attitude for working. This separation is a very useful psychological device when working from home, though it isn’t necessary for everyone.
As mentioned, a dedicated workstation is not a necessity for everyone. But it is undeniable that workers’ environment affects them, so controlling that environment is one way to improve productivity and efficiency.
Focus on training workflows and business processes, not individual tools
One tendency with training is to focus on the implementation of a new tool and to train employees specifically on that tool.
It’s true that the more sophisticated the platform, the more value it can add to the workplace.
However, tools themselves are always part of larger workflows and business processes, which include a range of tools and workflows.
To ensure that virtual workers stay productive, training should focus on:
- Workflows that span multiple platforms
- Business processes
- Technology stacks, rather than individual tools
Clearly, employees must learn new tools in order to work from home effectively.
However, to the degree that those tools interact with others as part of a complex workflow, it is important to train employees properly across all relevant tools and platforms.
Though this may seem simple, it is often among the most difficult measures to implement.
Workers often have a hard time removing distractions, especially if they are enjoyable ones, such as:
- Family members
- Social media
Working from home puts workers within reach of many more distractions than are available at the workplace.
At the same time, there are no supervisors or team members around to ensure that people don’t become too distracted.
Naturally, managers will measure worker performance to determine if they are meeting quota or not.
But if distractions persist, then they can easily end up reducing productivity and increasing stress. Employees can end up working longer hours to achieve the same output, which only increases frustration.
Create accountability systems to enforce self-discipline
One way to both reduce distractions and maintain self-discipline is to create accountability systems.
At their most basic level, these systems are built around rules, rewards, and penalties.
At work, incentives can come in the form of financial compensation, recognition, gifts, and so forth.
At home, these systems can take whatever form the employee wishes – after all, the employee will be the one implementing the rules.
What is most important in order to achieve results is follow-through.
Employees should enact each step:
- Create rules. Rules should be designed to maintain productivity, by, for instance, strictly prohibiting certain types of distractions. If an employee has a difficult time turning off the TV or social media, then a strict role can be set that prohibits those activities within a certain time period. For example: “No social media between 8 and 10 am.”
- Assign rewards and penalties. Successful adherence to a rule will earn a reward, which can be as simple as a can of soda, 20 minutes of social media, a TV program, and so forth. Penalties can simply mean the absence of that reward. Or, if an employee wants to be more strict, it can involve extra work or missing a break or some other unpleasant (but not overly taxing) penalty.
- Follow through. Following through can often be the most difficult part. Ironically, though these systems themselves are designed to enforce self-discipline, they also require a bit of self-discipline in order to enact them. Fortunately, though, the presence of rewards and incentives makes them much easier to enact than self-disciplinary measures by themselves.
These systems are not always necessary or effective for every single individual.
However, when they do work, they can be a very useful way to remove distractions and maintain self-discipline – both of which are critical to staying productive at home.
Continually upgrade digital skills
The digital workplace is continually evolving, which means that one’s digital skills should continually evolve.
Employees should be encouraged to take part in workplace training efforts, such as digital adoption efforts or online courses.
However, they should also be encouraged to continually improve their own skills.
There are several reasons why:
- Digital tools keep changing
- Career development
Skills determine one’s value in the marketplace, one’s productivity level, and how well one can keep up with the changing times.
Maintaining digital skills is no longer an option, it is a necessity.
WFH Onboarding Tips
How can an organization effectively onboard new employees into a work-from-home arrangement?
Onboarding is a critical stage in the employees’ life cycle, since it can set the tone for their entire relationship with an organization.
First impressions are, as the saying goes, the most important ones of all.
Next, we will look at a few steps to follow when onboarding employees remotely.
Onboarding is aimed at integrating employees into the workplace, the social environment, and their teams. They must also align themselves with the organization, its mission, and its aims.
At the same time, businesses must start training them as soon as possible, to ensure that those workers become contributing and productive members of the workforce.
So which goals should a business set for its onboarding efforts?
Zapier’s onboarding process focuses on four pillars:
- Connecting with the community and culture
- Highlighting new hires’ strengths to improve the company
- Learn through active practice
- Gain company-wide context
Naturally, every business should develop their own unique onboarding process that has its own specific aims.
According to the HR consulting firm AJO, onboarding should focus on four main areas:
Regardless of how you formulate these goals, the overarching aim remains the same: ensure that employees integrate into the workplace and become productive as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Choose onboarding software
Most onboarding efforts will need software that accomplishes certain functions, such as:
- Synchronous communication. Synchronous communication means that everyone is communicating at exactly the same time. Video conferences and webinars are examples of synchronous communication, where the speakers and listeners can communicate in real-time.
- Asynchronous tasks and communication. Asynchronous occurs at different times. Examples of asynchronous communication can include comments on a project management task, a discussion in a forum, or a collaborative onboarding task list. Today, online collaboration contains both asynchronous and synchronous communications.
- Analytics. Analytics should be spread throughout the business, across virtually every business process and platform. In employee onboarding, analytics can be used to track metrics such as retention, time-to-competency, employee satisfaction, and so forth.
- Training. Training should begin alongside onboarding. Though some professionals view training and onboarding as separate processes, what really matters is that employees start training from their very first day.
The right software will depend on many things, such as the organization’s size, its needs, and its budget. The culture will also have an impact, since different software applications lend themselves to different types of onboarding experiences.
Regardless of the specific onboarding toolbox, it is important to have onboarding software that meets the basic needs covered above.
Monitor new hires’ progress
As with normal onboarding efforts, businesses should regularly evaluate new hires’ progress.
HR should check in with a new hire at certain intervals – such as one, three, and six months – to evaluate their performance and collect feedback.
That information can then be used to assess:
- How well the employee is fitting in
- Whether they are meeting performance expectations
- Their needs
- The effectiveness of the onboarding program
These progress assessments can be completed quickly and easily, with the help of phone calls, surveys, polls, or other feedback collection mechanisms.