The work-from-home trend is picking up steam in multiple industries around the world. While the shift to work-from-home is driven in large part by shutdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, some companies have been moving in the remote work direction since long before the coronavirus was even a thought. Whether out of necessity or a desire to provide more flexible working options to support employees’ work-life balance, reduce costs, or achieve other goals, the time is right for companies to start considering how they might prefer to pivot in this new direction.
Both business leaders and employees of all stripes have found themselves facing new challenges head on as the need to navigate complex, unfamiliar tools (all while adhering to strict guidelines) has complicated multiple business practices.
Although the prospect of working from home represents a positive change for many employees, the specifics of doing so have proven difficult for many to manage alone. As for company leaders and managers, maintaining team cohesion as well as productivity in the midst of significant, sudden change has placed them under substantial strain.
Read on to learn more about the current state of remote work, how telecommuters can better adapt to working from home and how company leadership can more effectively manage employees from afar.
The State of Remote Work
The unique international circumstances that have shaken up the world’s industries throughout 2020 – namely, the COVID-19 pandemic – have brought about a strong shift in public perception of remote work arrangements.
The ubiquitous business commute has taken the backburner in favor of getting things done at home. However, it is the strong shift in priorities that business leaders and laborers alike have exhibited that has proven particularly fascinating to watch unfold.
Gone are the days of coffee and watercooler amenities reigning supreme for employees, to be replaced with pajama-clad workdays and company-provided Internet upgrades. For employers, the need for new office space has been overshadowed by the importance of better team management practices and more sophisticated monitoring tools.
Here are the main things on the minds of both parties at this point in time:
What Employees are Thinking
According to the results of Buffer’s yearly remote work report, the benefits and difficulties employees have chiefly associated with remote work have not budged much.
Loneliness and collaboration woes mar many remote work operations, while flexibility stands out as the primary motivator for most in favor of the practice to continue working remotely.
Many Prefer Remote Work
A variety of surveys and studies conducted over the course of 2020 have revealed just how much most workers actually prefer their new work-from-home arrangement. Up to 98% of respondents in Buffer’s “State of Remote” report for the year answered affirmatively when asked if they would like to continue working remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their time in the workforce.
Although the convenience of skipping the daily commute likely goes a long way in encouraging such a response from the majority of respondents, there are a number of additional considerations that make remote work more attractive to employees across the board.
Research conducted by McKinsey found that 80% of those surveyed say they enjoy working from home, with 28% saying they’re as productive as they were before and 41% saying they’re more productive than they were when working in their regular pre-pandemic environment. Employees have found ways to spend the time they’re saving on their daily commute and enjoy the flexibility that working from home allows them for a better work-life balance.
Comfort with In-Person Work May be Slow to Return
A poll by Citrix found about 64% of 2,000 US workers fairly reluctant to return to in-office working arrangements.
Given access to a wide variety of hygienic implements and a practically sterilized office environment, many would return to their office spaces, albeit cautiously. However, the preference for remote work is not so easily displaced by a sudden return to normalcy, as some workers no longer feel safe in an office environment.
What Business Leaders are Thinking
Among business leaders, the outlook on remote work appears largely favorable, with many planning on building out their flexible work arrangements over time.
A Permanent Shift is in the Works
According to the results of Gartner’s CFO survey, up to 74% of company leaders are considering a permanent shift to significantly more remote work arrangements in the wake of the COVID-19 impact on the world’s business conditions.
This decision appears to be tightly coupled with a push to cut costs without necessarily paring down the size of the workforce. Business leaders have also taken to reimagining working hours to offer greater flexibility to telecommuters and providing necessary equipment and software to ensure work can be handled from home without unnecessary friction.
‘Hybrid’ May be the New Normal
Employers surveyed by Mercer revealed a strong consensus towards providing opportunities for more flexible work arrangements moving forward. Up to 76% of all employers surveyed supported such a decision, suggesting hybrid working models and more lenient hours may become a permanent operational fixture in many businesses.
Working from Home
Employees faced with the exciting prospect of working from home for the foreseeable future may be overlooking a few of the most important aspects of the process – factors worth considering to ensure things play out smoothly.
The tips and guidelines below should put you on the right track towards successfully integrating remote work into your daily life.
Preparing Your Home for Remote Work
To make the most of a telecommuting arrangement, you will need to prepare your living space to accommodate your work. There are two major elements to get right with this process – eliminating distractions and establishing your primary workspace.
You should always aim to keep distractions to a minimum for the sake of fostering the focus needed to get your work done.
Often, having a physical barrier between yourself and the rest of your home can work wonders in this regard. Whether that is a simple door or a dividing wall is up to you and what works best in the space you live in.
Set Up a Workspace
By setting aside a specific space for work only, you can keep yourself focused while you are getting things done and more effectively detach from your job when your work day is over.
The space you choose to set aside for work should be relatively quiet and safe for you to spend plenty of time in without being interrupted by anyone.
Setting Up Your Remote-Work Schedule
Creating a comfortable routine to match your required telecommuting hours can work wonders on your overall productivity and motivation.
More than anything, you should remember to set hard and fast limits to your workday to avoid overworking and burning yourself out.
Caring for Family Members
Whether you have older relatives to look after, young children to watch over or demanding pets who want to play, figuring out how you can keep up with them without getting distracted from your work is an important step to take before you get started.
Get the Details Right
Clarify your employer’s expectations from the start to ensure you can accommodate them.
If you have yet to receive specific guidance on remote work protocols, etc. then ask if any such information is available for you to have on hand. This can cut down on a lot of potential issues down the line.
Managing Work-from-Home Employees
The management process for remote employees involves many of the same concerns as does that of on-premises employees, but seemingly minor details can make for dramatic differences in business practices across the board.
Below are the most important differences worth considering when planning out an effective management strategy for remote personnel.
Monitoring and improving performance of your remote workforce requires a number of procedural shifts to be implemented. Among these, actively encouraging productivity in novel ways and approaching performance tracking from a new perspective rank high.
The best approach to encouraging productivity among remote employees centers around results.
Management by Objectives (MBOs) helps to highlight both what should be done within a given timeframe as well as reward employees who achieve each of their established objectives.
MBOs can be a very powerful approach to management if it is handled and implemented competently, but this can only be done when managers keep track of project details, finished tasks and key performance indicators (KPIs) carefully.
Monitoring and KPIs
Keeping tabs on remote laborers is quite a different process from overseeing in-house workers. With remote workers, KPIs are not as easily captured and daily activities cannot be monitored as closely as they could be with workers on premises.
However, there are still ways to keep track of your remote workforce’s performance on an individual, meaningful basis. The answer lies in choosing the right KPIs to track in the first place and deciding on what activities truly are important to monitor from the start.
Victoria Vessella at Repsly recommends paying special attention to the following seven characteristics of effective KPIsto ensure that what you are considering tracking is actually worth tracking at all, let alone with remote workers:
- Alignment with Organizational Goals
Empowering Remote Personnel
To maximize motivation across your remote workforce, you should strive to empower every worker with the tools and services that they need to carry out their duties effectively.
This is even more important for employees who are unaccustomed to the work-from-home process.
Paying for monthly work-related expenses and providing necessary software and equipment to workers who are ‘phoning it in’ goes a long way towards promoting greater engagement from each of them with your company and encouraging them to align their own contributions with its overarching goals.
Companies such as Twitter, Shopify and Basecamp have done just that – issuing a $1,000 home office bonus to all of their teleworkers as a way of ensuring they can comfortably contribute from their homes, while Indeed promised to reimburse workers up to $500 for desks, lighting, or other necessary equipment.
Keeping in touch with team members who are spread out across separate locations can seem almost impossible, but the right tools make it much easier to manage.
The meteoric rise in popularity of video conferencing tools such as Zoom shows just how important face-to-face meetings are for most organizations. However, there are a wide variety of tools to choose from to keep your remote team connected.
Messaging services such as Slack allow all your team members to communicate collaboratively while maintaining structure and topical relevance. Slack, in particular, also allows for separate services and systems to be integrated neatly into the platform, making it possible for important updates of all types to be added to the appropriate channels automatically as they occur.
Outline Communication Protocol
Besides deciding on the perfect communication tools to use and incorporating them into your established business operations, you should also take the time to define your company’s communication guidelines, detailing how and when privileged information can be shared, with whom, etc.
Services such as those offered by Asana allow team members in any location to collaborate with one another without the hassle and confusion created when conversations are strewn across multiple communication mediums.
It is important to consider issues pertaining to in-person and remote team members collaborating as well. Keep remote workers in the loop with their on-premises coworkers by making a clearly defined and remotely accessible collaborative space available to all team members to centralize their efforts.
Besides providing the necessary means by which personnel can meaningfully collaborate on work, you should also take into account the difficulties faced by team members trying to communicate and interact with one another without the usual social cues they would have at their disposal while working together in person. To mitigate such issues, it can help to define the basic rules of engagement or etiquette that team members should follow to communicate with one another more effectively. This may involve establishing minimum response time requirements or maximum word counts in text messages, etc.
Whatever the rules you define may be, they should be designed with productivity and team cohesion in mind, encouraging remote personnel to mesh well with one another and avoid distracting each other from their work.
Although employees completing their work from home can cause most aspects of management to shift in response, the need for compliant business practices remains the same, regardless of location. Of particular importance in the US are the legal requirements delineated in both the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
Maintaining HIPAA compliance involves keeping consumers’ private health information out of harm’s way regardless of the location or device such information may need to be accessed on. Employers are definitely still responsible for the safeguarding of such information even when multiple employees require access to this same information while working remotely.
Although it might not be easy to find and eliminate all potential threats to the privacy of consumer health information in a remote employee’s home office, there are a number of useful tips that you can keep in mind to ensure that even if your remote team members require access to sensitive health information, they can still keep it safe on their own home networks and devices.
The following tips can help curb the most egregious examples of non-compliance with HIPAA health information safeguarding requirements:
- Complete your wireless router’s setup process and create a strong, non-default password for the router itself.
- Do not access any more private health information than is absolutely necessary to complete your work.
- Try not to print out any private health information you have access to whenever possible. If printing is absolutely necessary, then be sure to store all printed documents somewhere safe, where they cannot be seen by others.
- Do not say a patient’s full name out loud around other, unauthorized people.
- Never send private health information over an insecure medium, such as email, without encrypting it first.
- Lock your computer screen whenever it is not in use to keep unnecessary risks from manifesting.
Under OSHA regulations, employers are expected to comply regardless of workspace location. What this means is that even if employees are instructed to complete work from home in a remote capacity, their employers are still liable for any and all of the same occupational safety and health risks as before while they are doing so.
Employers are expected to protect employees from work-related harm even in their own homes if that is where work will be completed from. This protection may involve special training on how to stay safe while working from home. It might also be necessary to provide suitable equipment to remote team members to ensure that they can protect themselves and their own safety within their home environment.
Employers that are made aware of unsafe conditions within an employee’s home may be liable should an accident occur involving said conditions during working hours.
Create a Remote Work Policy
A remote work policy establishes a given company’s rules and guidelines for remote work. Once a remote work policy has been drafted and put in place, it is made mandatory for all remote employees to follow, helping to eliminate many risks to both the company itself and its employees.
To create a remote work policy for your business, you should include specific rules and best practices for the following areas of interest:
- Who is allowed to do their work remotely, when such work needs to be done, and how work should be completed.
- What equipment, tools and technology will be made available for use by each remote employee by your company and how exactly these should be used to ensure they are safe at all times.
- Legal concerns surrounding this type of working arrangement in your area, rights remote employees have and important compliance guidelines such employees must follow wherever they are located.
The Future of Remote Work
Everything from time tracking apps to mimicking normal days at the office are expected to rise in prominence over the next few years among remote workers. It’s imperative for employees to adopt a suitable attitude towards remote work to ensure that everything you need to get done gets done correctly, without allowing work to creep surreptitiously into the other facets of your daily life.
Privacy and security tools will have an increased prominence in the not too distant future as sensitive data begins to make the rounds among distributed networks of remote team members.
The tools and services enabling companies to take advantage of alternative work arrangements are likely to stick around, offering increased operational flexibility and robustness to companies that have overcome the learning and implementation curves such offerings presented them with.