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Will the H1N1 Flu Change the Way We Work?

A middle school just an hour’s drive from my home is closed this week, as were scores of schools across the country, due to a confirmed case of the H1N1 Virus (also known as swine flu). Like many Americans, I find it hard to imagine a disease causing widespread quarantine or other community containment measures. I’m too young to remember the polio outbreaks of the early 1950s – when swimming pools, theaters, and other public places were closed in an attempt to slow the spread of that disease. And more recent threats of epidemic have failed to materialize. Yet right now in parts of Mexico, business has virtually come to a halt. Will we see similar circumstances here in the US?

As the World Health Organization issues warnings about the threat of H1N1 virus, businesses are exploring possibilities for maintaining operations during a pandemic. Although it’s not a solution for all jobs, many employers are laying a foundation for employees’ working from home. One company I’m familiar with recently sent notification to all employees requesting that those with laptops take them home every evening – just in case the office would close due to the flu.

For organizations trying telecommuting for the first time, there are steps you can take to enable success.

  1. Plan ahead. Work from home arrangements can certainly be made “on the fly,” on a case by case basis. But planning for this contingency will greatly increase likelihood of success. Think about who would be eligible, under what circumstances, and for how long. Confirm, test, and communicate your organization’s conference call capabilities as well procedures for remote access to e-mail and other networks.
  2. Make sure employees have the tools they need to work remotely. Companies should consider providing laptop computers, access to company files through virtual private networks, telephone and web conference services. Many employers also provide reimbursement for high speed internet access, use of home office supplies, and long distance telephone calls.
  3. Clearly communicate expectations around availability and work outcomes for employees working from home. For managers not accustomed to managing remotely, it can seem strange supervising people who are not in the office. Take extra steps to over communicate. Discuss expectations for deliverables and let employees know how you’d like to keep informed of progress. Consider group conference calls to start and end each day – especially in the beginning.
  4. Reach out to employees to stay connected. Research in Industrial and Organizational Psychology points to employee isolation as a negative consequence commonly experienced by telecommuters. Whether it’s a short term solution or a longer term arrangement, make sure to reach out to employees to keep them involved and informed. Daily conference calls, scheduled progress updates, and access to company systems can help employees be more productive when working from home.
  5. Recognize and encourage personal limits. Although often promoted as a way to improve work-life balance, telecommuting can cause a blurring of work-life boundaries. This can create a great deal of stress for employees struggling to set limits. Encourage employees to set aside space and time for work, communicating and adhering to set “working hours,” to help reduce role conflict that often arises when working from home.
  6. Provide support beyond the work tasks. Remember that employees in these situations may be experiencing a great deal of anxiety and stress outside of their work situation. Take time to understand these personal challenges and find out what additional support they may need.
Although we don’t yet know whether the H1N1 Flu will erupt into a full pandemic, it’s important to plan for contingencies now. Doing so will help to minimize impact on business, employees, and families even in the worst of circumstances.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Anna Erickson published on May 1, 2009 1:56 PM.

The Lesson of Bird Flu and Swine Flu for Organizations was the previous entry in this blog.

Goal-Setting Principles: Problematic or Universal? is the next entry in this blog.

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