By Renee Mielnicki, Esquire and Nancy Owen, PHR
Though remote work options have been steadily increasing over the past decade, the pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in the number of companies allowing remote work. According to a recent survey conducted by Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research, as much as forty-two (42%) percent of U.S. workers have been working from home full-time during the pandemic.
With the excitement that the COVID-19 vaccine could soon bring us a new normal, employers now have to ask themselves if and how they will bring those remote workers back into the office.
Where remote work was possible before COVID, philosophies on it were mixed. Some believed that working in an office environment was critical to high performance and the success of the business. Others thought that attracting and retaining top talent requires a work/life balance that includes remote work.
Regardless of their philosophy, many employers were forced to push some or all of their workforce to work from home during the pandemic. Experiences and viewpoints have varied, but many lessons have been learned. Here are some examples:
- Allowing employees to work from home can result in saving money on office space.
- Some employees are more productive when they work from home while others are not.
- There are some remote employees working too much because they feel no separation between work and home.
- Not every employee wants to work from home, while others want to do so on a full- or part-time basis.
- Since working from home is now more common, employers may have to allow it, whether full- or part-time, to attract and retain talent.
SHOULD WE BRING THEM BACK?
When deciding if you will call your workforce back to the office, consider how work from home has worked for your organization so far. Then ask yourself these questions:
- Does remote work suit our employees? In some cases, it may make sense to allow employees to continue to work from home where they would like to do so while in other cases it may not. For example, if some of your employees have shown to be highly effective at home and they like it, it may benefit all to allow this to continue.
- Does it suit our organization? Where the employer is now opening the office to customers or resuming travel, it may not be practical to continue work from home, at least on a full-time basis.
- What about public health guidelines and mandates? Employers will also have to consider COVID vaccination policies, social distancing, face masks and any other public health guidelines that must be followed before employees are brought back to work. Laws relating to these issues constantly change so a plan to keep up to date and in compliance must also be made.
Whether you allow remote work now or will continue to do so in the future, a plan will need to be made for:
- Sending a written communication to your staff about any changes that will be made with remote work.
- Establishing a Work from Home Policy and training your supervisors on it.
- Developing strategies to maintain a positive culture and to effectively manage and engage employees that work from home.
MANAGING REMOTE WORKERS
Establish a Work from Home Policy: Once you have decided what your remote work option will look like (assuming you have or will continue one), a written policy should be established and provided to employees. It should touch upon who is eligible to work remotely, whether the full- or part-time option is available, expectations for performance, timekeeping rules, the employer’s authority to revoke it any time, as well as other provisions.
Maintain a Positive Culture: Maintaining a positive culture that includes a remote work force is an ongoing task. It will require keeping employees engaged by communicating regularly, including the use of virtual calls and meetings. Invest in communication applications like Zoom so employees can communicate “face to face”. Set up video meetings or call using a video option rather than emailing or calling on the telephone. When your employees know they will be seen, they dress for work, stay available, and keep engaged.
- Don’t micromanage employees. Have faith that they will do a good job. If they don’t, you will find out about it and should hold them accountable. Until they give you a reason not to trust their work, give them the room to do their job without your constant oversight and guidance.
- Set clear expectations. Managing a remote workforce is also an ongoing task. One of the biggest problems remote workers have is understanding their parameters. When employees know what to expect, they can perform accordingly. Clearly define work requirements from the beginning, such as working hours and being available online with Zoom during those hours, so that employees are set up for success.
- Give constant feedback. Giving constant feedback, whether good or constructive, is part of good performance management. Meet with your employees on a virtual call so they can see your body language and your expressions while giving feedback about their performance. Be specific about what is working and what is not working. Give good feedback to encourage continued good performance. Give constructive feedback with directions on how to improve. This will increase the likelihood of improved performance and minimize potential damages to your business, such as lost customers.
- Give updates and ask for updates. Find a way to keep in the know about their work status, whether you use some type of software or simply ask them to keep track of their work manually and share updates with you. For example, ask them to share a spreadsheet of “to dos” with timelines. That way, both parties can keep track of what is getting done. Even if you don’t look at the spreadsheet every day, you’ll at least be able to see progress. As an employer, it keeps you from overlooking accomplishments while also keeping workers accountable.
Engage Remote Workers: To avoid an employee from becoming alienated or disengaged, communication is vital. As explained above, communicating regularly, especially with virtual calls and meetings, is critical to engagement. Leaving them to feel like they are alone on an island will result in feelings of isolation and poor performance.
- Have One-on-one Meetings. One-on-one meetings are crucial for effectively managing remote teams. Remote employees often miss small updates and ad hoc meetings that happen throughout the day and may not be as up to date. When employees work in an office setting together, conversations happen organically. So-called “watercooler” chats can turn into critical conversations where one employee shares important information with another employee. Because this type of communication is not happening with remote work, it is most important to keep your employees informed so they feel part of the company.
- Foster Teamwork. At this most vulnerable time, it is crucial to model a strong company culture that encourages teamwork and shares knowledge. You may want to consider things like creating a digital water cooler where employees can get on a virtual call with each other and catch up with each other and their daily lives. A company happy hour may also be a good idea for engagement.
- Meet in Person. Meet in person whenever possible by organizing outside meetings with social distancing. Maybe ask remote workers to occasionally work from the office or bring them together at a nearby coffee shop for an afternoon to catch up and check in.
- Team-Build. Team-building activities are a fun way to get all team members to share knowledge. Offer employees the chance to play team-based strategy games from their computers or match people from different parts of the company to team up on an activity like a trivia game. This can foster communication and connections among your remote team members who may feel isolated in their roles.
- Trust your employees. Whatever you do, remember that your remote workers are trusting you to be open and honest with them. Be sure to do the same. If an employee isn’t responsive or meeting a deadline, don’t assume they’re slacking off. Instead, reach out. They might be overwhelmed. It’s hard to know when they’re not in the same room. Remember to keep the communication going and give them the benefit of the doubt.
- Create a Safe Environment. A safe environment, where employees feel trusted and teammates are connected, yields new ideas and company growth. When employees are happy to come to work, they will be motivated to express ideas and set forth their best efforts. This leads to a high performing culture that grows your bottom line.
If you have questions about managing your remote workers or have any other questions related to human resources issues, contact East Coast Risk Management by calling 724-864-8745 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be happy to help!