So What Have Companies Learned Over This Year of Working Remotely? Not Enough
But it’s not too late to implement these recommendations before the next pandemic hits
Telework. Remote Work. Virtual Work. Work at home. It’s been a year, and we still haven’t figured out what term to use when attending a video call “mullet” style (business on top, party on the bottom). But nomenclature and apparel are the least of our concerns regarding the future of work. Much more importantly, businesses have not taken the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to plan for telework as a permanent fixture or reliable backup plan moving forward, opting instead to bide their time till the plague passes, with the intent to return to business as usual in the office when it’s all over, whatever “over” even looks like or means. That lack of attention could leave companies at a disadvantage in a future where remote work is the norm, or at least an expected option.
This year of forced remote work has brought out many and varied opinions about its efficacy and longevity. Simply search Medium for “telework” or its synonyms, and you will find pieces that run the full spectrum of predictions about its fate, from “here to stay” to “never again.” Those businesses that believe in the latter will struggle to attract talent in the next few years over those that have invested the time to have a plan for the former, and thus, will have positioned themselves to hire high performers from anywhere in the country or quickly transition back to teleworking, should a situation akin to 2020 reoccur.
The irony of resisting even having a plan for remote work is that companies have been working remotely for decades. Ever since the first time a corporation realized having an office in another part of the country or the world could result in additional revenues, businesses have adjusted to working from a distance, without face-to-face interaction and often working around asynchronous communications due to time differences. Decision makers were able to put systems and processes in place to communicate and collaborate effectively. They also put policies in place to establish expectations for coordinating between headquarters and satellite locations. It is time for businesses to evolve those policies to include expectations for telework or else risk falling behind the businesses that do.
When I ran FedEx’s work from home program for its customer service operations, I undertook an organizational transformation that involved the closure of sixteen call centers and transition of nearly 2,500 employees to work from home. To make that happen, we learned this point very quickly:
Sending a large group of employees to work from home takes intention, active planning, and a holistic understanding of how processes differ in-building versus from a remote location.
The following are the most salient of the myriad lessons we learned in planning telework that businesses should address now:
PUT IT IN WRITING
Employers have already had to make strategic decisions for how they have chosen to implement working from home since March 2020. Whether those decisions went deep into how to telework, or they could be captured by the directive “just make sure to connect through the VPN,” it would behoove all HR departments to capture those decisions in writing and have employees sign off on a standard remote work policy agreement to ensure clarity around accountability and responsibilities of employers and employees alike.
Some of the key features of our policy included the following:
- Remote workers had to provide a non-PO Box address that would be considered their domicile location, as well as provide notice to the company of changes to that address at least thirty (30) days in advance, whenever possible.
- Employees had to meet “proximity requirements” (e.g. employee’s domicile must be within 50 miles of a manager’s domicile) for participating in the remote work program, the goal of which was to ensure that managers could travel to employees relatively easily to provide support as needed. This later proved to be unnecessary, but it was intended to mitigate the risk of leaving employees feeling stranded early in the program.
- Expectations for proper handling and upkeep of company property, as well as requirements around returning company property upon termination of employment.
- A list of home office peripherals and services that the company would provide, as well as those not covered by the company (more on this in the next section).
- Definition of a “designated work area” that stipulated the requirements around who is allowed access to the area where work is performed, safety requirements and “hold harmless” indemnification language, noise and disturbance restrictions, etc.
WHEN IT COMES TO OPEX, KNOW THE RULES AND YOUR VALUES
This is the area that appears to be getting the least attention by businesses with teleworkers, but it’s the one that needs the greatest scrutiny and understanding of the law. Many companies sent employees to work from home without consideration of covering employee expenses for services such as phone and internet or material items such as a desk, chair, and monitor.
While it may seem unfair for employers to have to take these costs on due to an unforeseen situation that dictated the need to work virtually, businesses should be aware that some states require such expenses to be covered by an employer, such as California. And if there are employees in California who will receive expense reimbursements, those same reimbursements will have to be distributed to employees working remotely outside of California as well, to avoid the perception of discriminatory policy based on inconsistent treatment.
Beyond the legal aspects of covering expenses, this is an ideal opportunity for employers to reflect on their values as they apply to their employees. If a company can potentially reduce its operating expenses through a telework program, it might simply be good corporate practice to consider using some of those savings to alleviate the cost and logistical burdens of its personnel, for whom the transition to a home office can be similarly disruptive. Whatever the decision, at the very least, businesses should go through the exercise of assessing all variables before deciding whether or not to pay for a portion of these expenses.
Company culture is an easy component to overlook in a remote environment because the concept is nebulous by its nature. But it is for that very reason that employers should make special effort to recreate company values in ways that are adaptable to a virtual construct.
According to employee satisfaction surveys we conducted post-deployment at FedEx (i.e. after closing call centers and enabling people to work from home), the most consistent improvement opportunity cited by employees was to make the telework experience “feel” closer to their experiences working with colleagues and friends in a shared space. We went through exercises to drill down further into the meaning of this request, and what we realized was that employees had a desire to recreate the culture that drove the enthusiasm to perform. We needed a way to celebrate successes and the values of the company in a similar fashion as was done in person but transformed for a telework environment.
Company culture is an easy component to overlook in a remote environment because the concept is nebulous by its nature.
We were able to accomplish this by creating a reward and recognition platform in which accomplishments were promoted on an internal social media site the way they used to be promoted on bulletin boards. Employees could be recognized by managers, but they could also recognize each other to reinforce positive interactions they experienced with colleagues while working remotely. Recognition was tied to a point system, and as points accumulated, they could be traded for gifts available through the site. In this way, demonstrations of behaviors and achievements that were aligned with corporate values and exemplified in a virtual environment resulted in real, tangible artifacts to reinforce those values.
PLAY IT SAFE
Steps can be taken to mitigate the risk of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) in-building by working with facilities and asset management teams to provide chairs, desks, keyboards, monitors, etc. that help alleviate or minimize these injuries. It’s equally important for an employer to mitigate those risks when employees are working from home, perhaps even more important since the employer has less direct control over the physical layout of the office.
One way to reduce risk is to document and distribute instructions for OSHA-compliant ergonomic office set up to remote workers and follow up with video inspections to verify attributes such as desk height, angle and brightness of monitors, hand positioning relative to the keyboard, and any other criteria that correlate to RSIs. In addition, a video inspection of power cords and wiring, or any other trip hazards, can lessen the potential inherent dangers of a home office.
But what if, despite all of these risk mitigation efforts, an accident still occurs for a teleworker? Well it’s a good thing that “hold harmless” language was included in the remote work agreement mentioned in the first recommendation!
These are just a few facets of a purposeful remote work program that businesses should evaluate today, and it’s by no means a comprehensive list (I haven’t even mentioned virtual hiring methods to attract talent from anywhere or documenting side-by-side SOPs for brick and mortar versus telework processes and procedures). Whether employers choose to actively implement solutions for these potential pitfalls, or they simply draft an agreement that states the company is not responsible for any of it, the key takeaway is this:
Ignoring the lessons from the past year and assuming telework will have no role in the future of work will leave businesses scrambling to keep up with those employers who proactively plan for remote work with intention and careful consideration for how to implement it successfully.
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