The coronavirus has presented sweeping changes to how we carry out our day-to-day work. Copper’s Vice Chair Linda Taylor offers some practical advice for company leaders transitioning to remote working, and the measures required to keep everyone safe, well and motivated.

In an effort to delay the spread of the virus, the introduction of remote working, self-isolation and social distancing, along with associated money and food access worries, childcare issues and mental health fears, dominate the media. While the Association for Consultancy and Engineering calls for strategic interventions on the national stage and construction chiefs fight to keep sites open, companies are grappling with the practical issues of keeping the cogs turning to avoid a future housing and infrastructure deficit.

Of course, the good news is that technologically, we are ready for this. Collaborative working no longer has to be office-based – online conferencing and file sharing goes a long way to ensuring that outputs are delivered to the same standard and on similar timeframes as before. Many people actually report that home working makes us more productive; and there is no shortage of opportunities when it comes to environmental benefits.

But what about the mental or physical wellbeing of your staff? How are they coping with childcare and home schooling? And how can you build resilience, motivation and support into your team to allow for what could be an unprecedented level of sickness or long stretches of isolation for some?

These are unprecedented times, and no-one really knows how we will react – but as employers, it is important that we are doing everything possible to support our teams, and put systems in place to make it easier for them to help each other.

While our Director of Infrastructure and Major Projects Andrew Weaver will talk about our options for public and stakeholder consultation and engagement in the coming weeks, I am sharing our recent experiences and the practices we have introduced at Copper Consultancy to run the business remotely.

Regular team touch-ins: Copper runs these in regional teams, twice a day. Working from home can be lonely, particularly for more junior team members who may not be used to it. As well as managing workloads and sharing news, they also provide structure for the whole team to connect, socialise, and share their thoughts and experiences. If anyone is not coping or is affected emotionally by the situation, this is a safe place to air those feelings and work together to find solutions for them.

Switch on the video: Many of us feel uncomfortable doing this – the camera isn’t always kind, after all. But your team needs to see you, and it will encourage them to do the same – which will be really important in terms of picking up indications about their wellbeing. Psychologically, there is a big difference between saying the necessary things when asked to an empty room, and authentic group conversation. A large part of communication is through non-verbal signals.

Managing people: It takes more effort to stay in touch in a virtual working environment, but it is important to remember that you are one team working together. Make it your business to be aware of the needs of all teams across the business – even if it takes more reporting than usual. Be more proactive in encouraging line managers and project leads to flag new work and plan resources as far ahead as possible in leadership meetings and inbetween. Manage contingency planning too; there is a much higher likelihood of sickness now, even with distancing and isolating measures in place.

It is important to know who staff report to, and ensure line managers are taking responsibility for their team members’ workload, wellbeing and productivity. Encourage them not to take “I’m fine” as an answer if there is anything at all to suggest that their team members are not. They may need prompting to do this. Equally, it is important that line managers are supported and as leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure we have a robust support network in place for them.

One-to-one check-ins: Checking in with team members is not the responsibility of line managers alone – making it clear that it’s up to all of us to reach out to any team members who need encouragement and guidance is a given. There is no such thing as too much help at this time. We all have a responsibility to look out for one another.

Structure: Encourage your team to structure their day to manage their work. Twice daily check-ins provide motivation (and ensure that everyone is up, dressed and sitting at their desk at the beginning of the day!). We are discouraging people from working from bed, the sofa, or anywhere else that they relax. Having a clear distinction between work and relaxation is important in allowing everyone ‘time off from the office’.

‘Cabin fever’ is a significant risk to people’s mental health, so encourage regular breaks from the computer, and outdoor exercise (as long as it is within the parameters of government guidance). Your team is capable of deciding when and how this works best for them. As long as they don’t miss any meetings, continue to meet their deadlines and are available to take calls as required, give them permission to take advantage of home working and do their exercise at a time that suits – even if it is during office hours.

Briefing work: When your team is working remotely, it is harder to gauge whether they are clear about what they is expected of them, and when. As such, it is our responsibility to check in on work as well as mental health.

I would recommend probing more than usual, to draw out any misunderstandings that would normally be immediately apparent in an office environment; doing this ahead of time prevents misunderstandings that could translate to inefficiencies, inaccuracies or incomplete work.

Share helpful suggestions: If you discover any helpful systems, tips or guidance, don’t keep it to yourself. Everyone is learning how to operate in a different environment, so share this whether it’s via a WhatsApp message, Teams call or traditional email. Encourage your teams to do the same and then everyone benefits.

Be available: Just because you are at home does not mean you are off-limits outside of scheduled calls. Ideally, team members and supervisors will feel 100% comfortable calling you – but that trust is lost if you don’t welcome their calls. Make sure line managers and project leads know it is their responsibility to make sure they communicate the same message to their team members too.

Be flexible: If team members are far away from their family, or live alone, they may prefer to go back to their family home to work. As far as is practicable, our priority as leaders is to ensure our teams are as comfortable, safe and well as is possible. Discuss and agree these on a case-by-case basis – one size does not necessarily fit all.

Be safe: It might be necessary for staff to be on site or in an office with a client – if so, it is critical that social distancing arrangements are in place, staff recognise how important it is to avoid close contact with others and adopt the recommended hygiene precautions.

Look after yourself: It is more important than ever to keep safe, strong and calm. Just like everyone else, you are likely to have times when you doubt whether you have everything under control.

Even if you are resilient and experienced, nobody is prepared for a situation like this – so stay in touch with your own support network.

Talk to colleagues, business contacts, friends and family; be honest about what’s happening and how you are feeling; remember the fundamentals (eating and sleeping routines can go out of the window in abnormal times, even if we are usually creatures of routine). Even if you are the ‘always on’ type, take time to rest and unwind – however that works for you.