As a result of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown, many employers were forced to scramble to set up work from home options for their employees (enabling remote work), in order to keep their workplaces safely operational. Of course, back in March and April, we didn’t know what we didn’t know and few of us were willing to believe that we’d still be facing the realities of a global pandemic nearly a year later. And, although 2021 has come with hope (in part, in the form of vaccines), we’re not out of it yet and now is most certainly not the time for employers to let down their guards.
While not all industries, organizations and positions lend themselves to working remotely, for many employers/positions, it has been a necessary reality – one that will continue for months to come, and for some, even permanently. In fact, many employers have already – or are contemplating – going fully remote and/or are allowing that to be an ongoing option for applicable employees. This has resulted, in part, from the realization that yes, employees can actually be productive when working remotely, and, in many instances, are more productive. And that it can also help facilitate greater balance and flexibility, and as a result, less overall stress.
Although your organization may have come up with a viable interim solution for 2020, what should you be thinking about for the long haul in 2021 or perhaps a more permanent solution? First, let’s look at what didn’t work in that mad scramble early last year. We appreciate that employers and their employees had to make do with what they had and there was, at least for a time, a lack of available technology. With that in mind, some of the challenges we’ve seen over the last several months include:
- Technology issues ranging from spotty Wi-Fi, webcam/audio challenges (e.g. dark/shadowy, static, flickering lighting, grainy images) to not working at all
- People attending video meetings on their phones without the proper mechanisms
- People not using their cameras, so you’re left talking to a black box and don’t have the benefit of seeing their expressions, feedback, etc.
- People cancelling literally at the last minute or not showing up to meetings (which seemed, to some, to be more acceptable with virtual meetings)
- People working from their beds, couches, or kitchen tables
- Kids yelling, dogs barking, people in the background coming and going
Preparing for the Long Haul and/or a Permanent Remote Solution
As you likely know by now, remote work isn’t as easy as employees simply using their personal laptops and phones. To be effective, efficient, and professional on an ongoing basis, the following areas should be carefully considered and addressed.
Start with solid parameters
Develop a Work from Home/Remote Work Policy. Whether or not you put interim guidelines in place or have an ad-hoc remote work policy, for long-term/permanent remote work, it’s a good idea to have both a solid policy and agreement in place (e.g. a specific work from home agreement or a Schedule to their employment agreement (i.e. if not applicable to all employees). The agreement should align with your policy and tackle specifics such as office equipment (if provided by your organization); requirement/expectations for home office; occupational health and safety and other liabilities; the need for appropriate insurance; etc.
Cross your technology Ts
Based on your policy, what are the expectations and what does every employee working remotely need to have at minimum? Will your organization provide it (including an allowance for internet, for example), and if they use their own, what’s the protocol regarding security, preventing malware/viruses and ensuring confidentiality (e.g. are others in their home using the computer/seeing the material)? From there, what tools and resources are you using to share files and documents (e.g. cloud-based, Teams, SharePoint, Exchange, etc.), and what are your parameters around those tools?
In addition to maintaining electronic security, it’s also important to set guidelines around hard copy documents, notes, and files. Depending on the nature of your organization and the type of information employees are keeping/notes they are taking, is there an expectation to lock up notebooks and files, shred documents (do they need a shredder?) or take documents to be shredded on a set schedule? Additionally, how will you ensure confidentiality of information heard/discussed on phone calls and video calls when there may be other people within earshot at the employee’s home or workspace (which may in future be a public space)? While this can get tricky to navigate, be sure to clarify expectations, such as calls of a certain nature needing to be 100% confidential and the steps that must be taken by the employee to ensure that. Where that’s not always possible (e.g. in the case of spouses/partners/ roommates working in the same home space), it’s a good idea to have confidentiality agreements signed by those individuals.
Equipment & ergonomics
In addition to computers/laptops, there are a number of other components to consider, such as: keyboards, mice, webcams, speakers, phones, locking filing cabinets/boxes, desks, chairs, desk risers, anti-fatigue mats, etc. While, in the short term, it may have been acceptable and doable for employees to work from their couches, kitchen tables, and even propped up on their beds with a laptop, these options aren’t ergonomically viable for the long haul. As the employer, it’s important to set expectations here, keeping in mind that ergonomics is not only a part of occupational health and safety requirements, but can also greatly improve productivity. How are you willing to support your employees in ensuring an appropriately safe and efficient set-up?
Expectations for meetings and client communications
One of the most important and often overlooked or underemphasized components of remote work is ensuring professionalism with clients. On the one hand, COVID-19 taught us that it’s actually okay to relax and be a bit less formal in some ways without compromising professionalism (e.g. we don’t have to wear a suit/blazer or have perfect hair) – particularly with team meetings. On the other, you don’t want to go too far down the path of casual, such that employees are showing up for client meetings without having taken the necessary care – care which shows both professionalism and respect. This is in part about appearance, but also about being prepared with technology and what’s going on in the background. While virtual backgrounds are an option, you may also consider requiring use of green screens and/or privacy screens. Related to this is ensuring employees are as accessible and available to clients as they otherwise would be, if they were in the office.
When Working Remotely isn’t for Everyone
For those of us for whom remote work is an option and is working well, it can be easy to assume it works for everyone. The reality is that some employees need the structure of the office/worksite to be productive, and/or for their mental health. For many employees, the workplace was their primary social source and without it, they’ve suffered significantly. There are also individuals who simply can’t reasonably work from home due to the realities of their home situation. Over the last several months, employers have been able to navigate this by prioritizing those who really need to do so (either due to professional or personal circumstances) within their workspace. If going fully remote on a permanent basis is a real option for you, it will be important to consider how best to support those employees, either through the provision of more structure or such solutions as providing an allowance for working in a shared office space.