The coronavirus outbreak means that up to 20 per cent of the UK workforce could be off sick or self-isolating during the peak of an epidemic.
Millions of people may not be ill, but they will be following expert advice to stay away from their workplace to help prevent the spread of the virus.
There are clearly hundreds of roles where working from home simply isn’t possible, and questions are rightly being asked about ensuring people’s entitlement to sick pay.
But for a huge number of workers who are usually based in an office environment, remote working is a possibility – and is therefore likely to become the norm for millions.
With the economy in major trouble as evidenced by yesterday’s stock market falls, ensuring those who are fit and able can continue to work is important.
So employers should start today to prepare for efficient remote working as part of their coronavirus contingency planning.
Giant companies such as Twitter are already prepared. But this may be an entirely new concept for some firms.
The Open Knowledge Foundation which I lead has been successfully operating remote working for several years.
Our staff are based in their homes in countries across the world, including the UK, Portugal, Zimbabwe and Australia.
Remote working was new to me a year ago when I joined the organisation.
I had been based in the European Parliament for 20 years as an MEP for Scotland. I had a large office on the 13th floor of the Parliament in Brussels, with space for my staff, as well as an office in Strasbourg when we were based there. For most of my time as a politician, I also had an office in Fife where my team would deal with constituents’ queries.
Things couldn’t be more different today. I work from my home in Dunfermline, in front of my desktop computer, with two screens so that I can type on one and keep an eye on real-time alerts on another.
The most obvious advantage is being able to see more of my family. Being a politician meant a lot of time away from my husband and children, and I very much sympathise with MSPs such as Gail Ross and Aileen Campbell who have decided to stand down from Holyrood to see more of their loved ones. If we want our parliaments to reflect society, we need to address the existing barriers to public office.
Now in charge of a team spread around the world, using a number of technology tools to communicate with them, remote working has been a revelation for me.
Why couldn’t I have used those tools in the European Parliament and even voted remotely?
In the same way that Gail Ross has questioned why there wasn’t a way for her to vote remotely from Wick, hundreds of miles from Edinburgh, the same question must be asked of the European Parliament.
But for companies now planning remote working, it is vital to adopt effective methods.
Access to reliable Wi-Fi is key, but effective communication is critical. Without physical interaction, a virtual space with video calling is essential.
It is important to see the person when remote working and be able to interact as close as it would be face-to-face. This also avoids distraction and allows people to check in with each other.
We tend to do staff calls through our Slack channel and our weekly all-staff call is through Google Hangout.
All-staff calls – or all-hands call as we call them – are important if people are forced to work remotely. We do this once a week, but for some organisations morning calls will also become an essential part of the day.
Our monthly global network call is on an open source tool called Jitsi and I use Zoom for diary meetings.
If all else fails, we resort to Skype and WhatsApp.
In terms of how we share documents between the team, we use Google Drive. That means participants in conference calls can see and update an agenda and add action points in real-time, and make alterations or comments on documents such as letters which need to be checked by multiple people.
In the same way that our staff work and collaborate remotely, using technology to co-operate on a wider scale also goes to the heart of our vision for a future that is fair, free and open.
We live in a time when technological advances offer incredible opportunities for us all.
Open knowledge will lead to enlightened societies around the world, where everyone has access to key information and the ability to use it to understand and shape their lives; where powerful institutions are comprehensible and accountable; and where vital research information that can help us tackle challenges such as poverty and climate change is available to all.
Campaigning for this openness in society is what our day job entails.
But to achieve that we have first worked hard to bring our own people together using various technological options.
Different organisations will find different ways of making it work.
But what is important is to have a plan in place today.
• This post was originally published by the Herald newspaper
Catherine was the Chief Executive Officer of the Open Knowledge Foundation until August 2020 when she became the Chief Executive Officer of Creative Commons. She represented Scotland in the European Parliament between 1999 and 2019. As Vice-Chair of the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, Catherine worked on digital policy, prioritising the digital single market, digital skills, better accessibility of digital products for the disabled, as well as citizen online data protection and privacy.