Over the last two decades, advances in technology have transformed many businesses’ approach and philosophy to remote work. While there have been some trends over the last three years by some organizations to call their remote teams back to the physical office, in March of 2020, that trend generally came to a screeching halt in the United States. In fact, remote work has become a necessity for many businesses that perhaps never even considered a remote work environment. As we navigate an unprecedented global pandemic and most states employ a turn-the-dial approach to opening up businesses, organizational leaders have an opportunity to identify how their telework/remote policies and practices should be implemented and perhaps updated in the new world order to ensure a sense of equity and fairness amongst its workforce. The following provides three areas of focus business leaders should employ to ensure that remote work policies are effectively enforced.
Focus 1: Your Organization’s Starting Point
As we have learned from the state-by-state health and economic response to COVID-19, there is not a single physical return-to-work response strategy that will work for all. However, when working towards equity in the application of remote work policies, business leaders should consider their team’s starting point. Are you a business that has a robust telework policy that has been in practice for many years? If so, your managers and human resources professionals may be well equipped with the tools and processes that should be implemented to help with questions related to remote work situations. These questions can relate to team communication, the best method to measure productivity and provide feedback to remote employees, and how to best manage performance-related issues that may arise with a remote employee. If you are a business that very quickly had to shift its workforce to a remote work environment as a result of the pandemic, your policies and practices may be in the beta stage, and employees may sense the fact that you are all navigating in uncharted waters. While this newness —coupled with a global health crisis — can create some sense of uncertainty, this shift can also generate opportunities for your business to develop policies and practices that will help you navigate employees working in a remote environment.
Whether your business is a seasoned pro at remote work or has been thrust into a remote work setting, now is the time for business leaders and human resource professionals within your organization to re-examine existing remote work protocols. For those that have experience with remote work employees, it may be an opportunity to emphasize expectations surrounding remote work and to explore whether there is an ability to update policies that may be outdated or not working for your organization. For those businesses that are new to the remote work environment, business leaders should be open with their teams about the struggles that remote work environments may bring and acknowledge that the team is struggling through the new environment together. Outward acknowledgment of challenges during this difficult time can go a long way to promoting patience and a collaboration to finding solutions for an unplanned remote environment. Additionally, and even if the remote environment is not a long-term business goal, organizations should use this period to create protocols surrounding remote work in case of future unexpected realities that may require a remote work environment. Resiliency planning is key for any organization, particularly in light of the current pandemic.
Focus 2: Consistently Applying Evolving Legal Obligations Associated with Remote Work Policies
Even as workforces return to the office, managers should be aware of legal obligations that may arise from requests to continue to work remotely. In addition to robust policies that specifically set forth parameters for remote work, managers should understand that they should consistently and uniformly apply those policies across the employees that report to them. This means that in reaching decisions regarding remote work requests, a manager should ensure that they have considered the full impact of a decision on such a request to an entire team. Additionally, managers should consult with human resources professionals on prior decisions within a particular department or team related to remote work requests. Consistent application of remote work policies helps mitigate risk associated with a perceived feeling of unfair treatment when it comes to remote work requests, particularly during a time of crisis.
When evaluating remote work laws, managers should also be mindful of legal obligations created under the Americans with Disability Act and other EEO laws, including state law anti-discrimination and leave protection laws. Requests to continue to work remotely during this current health crisis even after a business has reopened may trigger obligations under both state and federal EEO and leave laws, and therefore managers should fully understand those obligations before they reach any decisions. Additionally and in response to the global pandemic, the legal landscape of EEO and leave laws has quickly evolved during the last few months. As such, managers and business leaders should be fully apprised of these updates, particularly as they navigate employee decisions during this time period. Managers should be mindful of applicable wage and hour laws such as meal and rest period and expense reimbursement laws as well as timekeeping requirements that apply to their workforce, regardless of their physical location. The key here is the fair treatment across employees, regardless of location.
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Focus 3: The Cultural Impact of the Pandemic on your Remote Team and the Opportunity to Reinforce a Healthy Workplace Culture
The impact of 2020 will forever change our workplace culture. The traditional handshake or congregating around the preverbal watercooler by employees to catch up on weekend adventures will not exist in the same format that they once existed. In order to meet social distancing guidelines, some businesses will only be able to have partial workforces physically present at a work location. Although our workplace social interactions will be modified for the foreseeable future, organizational leaders have the opportunity to establish updated workplace cultural norms that allow employees to feel welcomed and part of a workplace community no matter where they are physically located. Managers should set expectations and tone for their teams on what requirements are critical for employee involvement and participation. This will mean consistently encouraging employees to participate virtually or in-person and parameters on how each should participate. For example, if a manager expects team engagement during meetings or planning sessions, an option is encouraging remote employees to participate via video-conferencing.
Additionally, it’s key to communicate performance expectations and measurement of the same, particularly in a hybrid physical-remote environment. Although employees receive much of this information when they join an organization through the new hire orientation process, given the level of significant societal change we have experienced during a very short period of time, it’s important to level-set expectations regarding performance, participation, and accountability. This refresher allows employees to appreciate job role expectations regardless of where they are physically located. With consistent communication, managers have an opportunity to ensure that employees feel that they know the rules of the game wherever they are performing work, and that will enable business leaders to develop a healthy workplace culture in a time of much uncertainty. Finally, to nurture a culture of fairness, leaders should ensure that they are available to all team members. This seems like a simple concept, but the simplest things matter the most during a crisis, and access to leadership is critical for workforces who are working both remotely and physically in the office. Managers should ensure that they are not only available but that employees know how to access managers. Equal visibility and access to leadership goes a long way towards perceived fairness and provides employees the security and confidence that they need no matter where they are physically located.