Now that our “new normal” will typically include some remote work options, it’s time to formally set expectations about employee performance.
In the first months of the COVID shut-down, we excused dogs barking in the middle of a presentation, people in sweatshirts working off the kitchen counter, spotty connections, and fumbling with technology: “You’re on mute!”.
Some leaders believe the solution is just to require that everyone come back to the office. However, recent surveys show that more than half of workers would consider leaving their jobs if they were not allowed to retain some of the flexibility in space and time that they came to value.
So leaders will need to develop remote work agreements covering 4 major areas:
- Flexibility in schedule and place
- Professional decorum
- Home office setups and data/equipment security
- Digital tools and training
How much flexibility should employees have?
Employees enjoy having more flexibility about when and where they work, and companies can benefit by expanding their hours of operation or customer support. For example, a “follow the sun” model means employees around the globe are working around the clock.
Some businesses provide standardized schedule options, such as four 10-hour work days, or approving employees to work remotely one day a week.
Other companies set certain times when employees are expected to be in the office and leave it to employees to manage the rest of their time as long as they meet their goals. Of course, there are legal differences between exempt and nonexempt employees with regard to tracking time and pay, mandatory breaks, and unscheduled work even in a work-from-home setting, so be sure to consult lawyers and HR experts before creating new agreements.
Make decisions based on a rational and unbiased analysis of each role. Even if you think it’s prudent for workers over age 60 to remain working at home because of health risks, or you want to accommodate mothers with young kids with a more flexible schedule, discrimination complaints could arise from those who feel that they are unfairly being denied those perks.
Agreements about where and when employees work need to start with an analysis of their tasks to see:
- Which tasks are best done in a company facility,
- What hours need to be covered or available for team meetings, and
- How much flexibility employees have in deciding how and when to modify their schedule.
Most organizations, even pre-COVID, developed template agreements through their HR offices that employees and managers sign and review on a periodic basis.
It’s likely time to review these documents in light of what we’ve learned over the past year about employee productivity and talent retention.
What does professional decorum look like?
Is it OK to attend a Zoom staff meeting from a poolside lounge, or to take a business call with screaming kids in the background? If sales reps wore professional-looking dresses or suits when visiting customers, can they dress more casually when doing a sales call from home?
It’s time to develop more clarity - but when crafting policies, remember that over this past year, our stakeholders have also become much more sensitive to identity and inclusion.
For example, dress codes should be gender-neutral, and religious or cultural practices and symbols should be respected. Be clear about whether shirts with slogans, brands or images are allowed, keeping in mind freedom of expression but also considering the impact or impression they make, especially if employees are customer-facing.
Some companies have made it explicit that remote work does not mean that employees can juggle child or senior care with work, even though in previous months when schools and daycare were closed, everybody was much more tolerant.
For example, Cornell University published clear guidelines that employees need to use personal time away if they have ongoing obligations that don’t allow them to focus completely on their work.
In the 9-5 face-to-face office, people knew where to find their co-workers and could get answers quickly. However, for companies that are now allowing flexibility in schedule, it’s important to set expectations for response times -- such as how quickly employees are expected to answer emails, texts, or to return phone calls.
How much notice are they given before calling them to an in-office meeting? Are there certain hours of the week when they are not expected to respond at all? Many companies make clear not only how to be responsive, but also how to un-plug since burn-out and poor mental health is negatively impacting performance.
Mandatory office setups and data / equipment security
Employers are required to ensure that the workplace is safe, and legally that could extend to home offices. To facilitate properly equipped and ergonomic setups, many companies offer remote office stipends.
Fugitzu Asia anticipates that their employees will be spending up to 90% of their time out of the office so they are providing up to $1,000 for employees to outfit their home offices while also redesigning their corporate office to maximize collaborative activities.
Buffer offers a suite of remote work benefits, including stipends for home offices, renting coworking spaces, and even a small stipend to purchase food and beverages for those who like to work from coffee shops. It’s also critical to make sure that data and equipment remain secure, so policies should include:
- Requiring that company laptops be kept locked when not in use.
- Ensuring that work conversations cannot be overheard.
- Prohibiting employees from letting family members use company computers or cell phones, and requiring that all work be done only on company-provided equipment.
- Standardizing the use of VPNs to reduce the possibility of data theft.
Team members are responsible for making sure their space and background appear professional, especially if employees are interacting with customers or the public. Many companies are mandating that company-branded photo backgrounds be used for video meetings like these from Chapman University.
Proficiency in remote collaboration tools and management
Employees who work in a hybrid work environments should be proficient in using digital collaboration tools and in providing effective supervision without micromanaging or invading privacy.
Training has never been more important; companies should standardize a suite of collaboration tools and make sure that everyone is fully competent. Especially when you consider that surveys show that remote employees desire training not only on the safety and technical requirements related to the current COVID situation but also on broader skills that will help them succeed at work.
There are commercially available courses that will help managers get up to speed, such as the Remote Work Certification offered by GitLab.
Ongoing communication is the key
As we navigate the process of re-entering the office, keep the lines of communication open with employees. Now is not the time for a heavy-handed approach; work with them to develop your policies and ensure they feel valued to minimize attrition.
Reduce uncertainty: Microsoft developed a hybrid workplace dial with six defined stages – from mandatory work at home through “soft open” to fully open to respond clearly and quickly to changing local health conditions and government requirements.
Lockheed Martin created the “LM Forward team” to determine how the company would operate after the pandemic and have already found that over 40% of their employees won’t be coming back to the office full-time. They are continuing to monitor employees’ sentiment and adjust policies as circumstances evolve, both at the workplace and within other areas of workers’ life such as school and daycare openings.
Tools like Robin will help companies structure the best environments for high-performance work; allowing employees and team leaders to schedule spaces and quickly see what’s happening in the office reduces uncertainty and empowers them to make the choices that support their best efforts.