The Implications of Telework

June 15, 2021

Looking back over the past year-plus, it goes without saying our lives, social norms, business practices, and overall sense of security have been upended. March of 2020 brought with it a great deal of uncertainty, fear, and questions about the future. Fast forward a year and a lot has been learned, changes have been made, and organizations are trying to find their footing with the new normal. There are countless questions that have been asked and answered and so many still unanswered questions when it comes to the organizational impact of COVID-19. One of those big questions continues to circulate around employee remote work. For quite some time there was specific federal and state guidance surrounding remote/telework and companies that could accommodate this work arrangement shut down the office and sent people home. As we look to the future of ongoing sustainability of work arrangements, the impact of the COVID-19 vaccine and countless other considerations such as employee preferences and efficiencies, the questions surrounding remote work continue to become more complex. There is a myriad of questions when a business is analyzing whether to continue remote work, offer a hybrid model, or get people back to the office. Below we have addressed some areas every organization should be considering when asking these questions.

Should we continue allowing employees to work from home once we no longer need to consider COVID-19?

This is the million-dollar question! For some businesses, it is easy when their employees must be on one site to fulfill their jobs (i.e. in-person customer service, retail, restaurant, etc.).However, for a lot of businesses some or all of their staff can complete their jobs from their home office in a remote work environment. So where does that leave us? Employers must assess the pros and cons for each unique business and for each position within the organization. Now is the time to take a hard look at what decision best fits the goals and long-term vision of the organization. I don’t recommend that any business jumps into a decision to automatically bring everyone back to the office, or automatically allowing indefinite remote work. This means it’s time to throw out assumptions about what a productive employee looks like and what work environment best suits the needs of the overall organization. This article cannot address every unique situation, but some important questions include:

  • What results have you seen with the shift to a remote work environment during COVID-19?
  • Has productivity gone down, remained the same, gotten better?
  • What about employee relations? Do you find there are fewer disagreements between staff with some distance separation?
  • Are employees communicating and collaborating on work effectively? Or have there been communication breakdowns?
  • What technology is in place to allow for remote work? How is it working? Would the organization need to invest more resources into technology to make remote work a long-term sustainable option?
  • What resources does each employee have and/or need in their remote environment (i.e. printer, office supplies, etc.)?
  • What remote IT support do you have for staff working remotely?
  • What type of cost savings has the organization experienced, or could experience, with a remote workforce (i.e. building costs)? What additional expenses will be incurred if remote work continues?
  • Is the hesitancy to allow for remote work based upon business reasons or a hesitancy to change? Look at the decision from a business lens as far as how the decision will impact productivity, customer satisfaction, financial savings/costs, etc. as opposed to the fear of not seeing people in the office.
  • What benefits may be lost by not having people in the office? What benefits could be gained by remote work?
  • Is there a hybrid model available that could include office sharing and partial remote work? Is there a benefit to this model and if so, what is it?

The questions could go on and on, but at the end of the day, each organization must ask these questions to determine what makes the most business sense. We’ve all gone through and continue to go through a very challenging time. One thing COVID-19 gave us is the opportunity to think creatively about what business should look like and how to define the success of our people and our organization going forward. Take advantage of this opportunity to think outside of the box and determine what is the best fit for your organization’s health.

What to do when you’re having a hard time getting people back to the office.

So, you’ve made your decision and you’re ready to start bringing people back to the office. You’ve analyzed your workforce and business factors and determined that either employees need to return to their traditional in-office setting or at least some type of hybrid model. Now, the challenge is how to get employees back to the office without a full-blown rebellion. Employees have grown accustomed over the last year to having more time in their day without the commute, relaxed dress code, and working from the comfort of their homes. It’s no surprise there may be push back when they receive the message that the gig is up and back to the office we go. So how do you navigate that communication with as little disturbance as possible?

Communication and transparency are key! Start by talking to employees about their thoughts, hesitations, and fears. Let them know that the organization cares about their experiences and preferences. Ideally, this communication takes place prior to a final decision being made. You may be surprised by how much great feedback you will receive. These are the folks doing the day-to-day work from home and may have some really valuable perspectives in helping the organization make their decision.

Once that decision is made, ultimately leadership must stand by that decision and be able to effectively communicate this to staff. This may include leaders who don’t agree with the decision, but any wavering in leadership will be seen through by employees and immediately breakdown the communication. Make sure your leadership team understands and buys into the decision, even if they don’t personally agree 100%.

From there, share as much as you are able to with employees. Why was the decision made? What were the business reasons? How have you seen remote work impact customer service standards? How has remote work worked and not worked? Employees need to understand that they have been doing a great job amidst a really challenging time and that the decision to return to the office is not based upon their failures. But rather a detailed analysis of the overall needs of the organization. This still might not get everyone on board, but it sets the stage that the decision is not personal it’s business, and here is why.

Give people time to adapt. I would not recommend making the decision and then having everyone return the next day. Give time for communication and feedback and then set a date to give people time to prepare and settle into the idea. If you’re opting for a hybrid model, leadership should be working with their teams to establish what this model will look like.

Try to remind employees what was loved about being in the office. Did you have weekly coffee brought in or Friday take-out lunch? Has there been feedback about being disconnected from others and being together will allow for more collaboration, teamwork, and information sharing?

While you’re spending all this time considering flexible work arrangements, consider what other options might fit business needs and be an added benefit to staff to assist with recruitment and retention. For example, are there alternative work hours for those that prefer to start their day early or sleep in? Are there options for shortened work weeks with arrangements such as 4 10s or other flexible hours? What about shutting down the office at 4 pm on Friday instead of 5 pm? Certainly, none of these are requirements and the focus must be on productive business practices, but often giving a little bit of flexibility creates more productive employees who value staying with an organization that provides these types of benefits when possible.

Ultimately, it’s at the employer’s discretion to make this decision and there may be employees who decide the job is not the right fit for them any longer. Hopefully, this is minimal but be prepared for some employees deciding that remote work is a new criterion for their work and therefore will be looking elsewhere.

Please note, all of this guidance does not pertain to those who may be protected by high-risk worker status.

What if we want to continue remote working indefinitely? What are some things we need to plan for?

> How to keep staff engaged

Maintaining an engaged workforce is an important component whether working from the office or from home. However, the remote work environment is new for many organizations and the implications of remote work on staff engagement is a new issue many organizations are faced with. Ideas to consider include:

  • Ensure regular use of technology to allow for team engagement and video conferences. Seeing faces in work environments allow for more connection amongst the team and holds everyone accountable for participation in meetings and workgroups.
  • Don’t forget about the fun stuff! What did you previously do in the office to allow employees to step away from work and enjoy connecting with each other on a personal level? This could have been monthly potlucks, Friday Starbucks coffee breaks, or even just the natural conversations that took place in the breakroom. Determine ways that your organization can allow for the human connection outside of the daily workflow. Perhaps this is a monthly video meeting with a team game, or a meet-up in a park to enjoy some sunshine and personal connection. Whatever the path, ensure your employees continue to build strong relationships with their co-workers by allowing them the space to connect on a personal level.
  • Solicit feedback on how remote work is working for employees. Often times employees will assume leadership is aware of issues in the work environment or issues with the work resources, which isn’t always the case. Have an open dialogue with employees to allow them to share what is and what isn’t working. Perhaps there are resources they are lacking that are limiting their ability to do their job. Maybe there are technology issues they are facing. Feedback can come in many forms and can align with each organization’s communication style. For example, open sharing with management as issues come up, official support tickets, feedback surveys, etc.
  • Don’t forget about recognition. You may not see employees every day or as often as you would in the office, but the need for recognition is just as important. Find opportunities to call out successes for your team members. Whether this is in the form of kudos during a video call with the team, a department email, a gift card recognizing an accomplishment, etc. Show your appreciation for your staff and provide ongoing encouragement and support.

> The at-home office

For years, your organization has operated with an established workspace with all the necessary tools for staff to access. Now you’re faced with each employee having their own individual workspace. First and foremost, you will need to determine what employees need long-term to be successful in their home workspace. This could include tools such as pens and paper, notebooks, paper shredders, computer monitors, work phones, staplers, etc. Think about all the office supplies and work tools needed for each position. Employees will continue to need these resources when working from home. How will they be distributed? How should employees request replenishment of supplies? What happens if something breaks? What are the confidentiality requirements of customer/company documents? What type of workplace ergonomics support will the company provide (i.e. stand up desk)? These types of questions will look different for each organization and each position but must be established to ensure the success of each employee.

> Work-life balance and maintaining productivity

Employees working from home must continue meeting the productivity and quality of work standards required for their position just as if they were working in the office. However, they must also learn how to set boundaries at home and create structure around their home life and work-life which are now so close in proximity. The more an employer can communicate expectations and provide helpful guidance and resources, the more successful the employee will be. Items to consider may include:

  • Have a dedicated workspace. Employees need to, when possible, have a dedicated workspace that isn’t their couch or dining room table. Creating some distance between where they work and where they live helps maintain work organization and establish boundaries for work life and personal life. It’s also important that other family members understand the importance of work document confidentiality and respect the space devoted to work. You don’t want documents getting inadvertently tossed or into the wrong hands and employees have a responsibility to set up a work environment from home that fosters dedicated work time and contributes to their ongoing organization and commitment to confidentiality.
  • Structure the work schedule. Structuring a workday in the office is a bit more straightforward. An employee shows up for work, goes to their office or worksite, has some social interaction throughout the day with coworkers, attends meetings, then leaves for the day and goes home. When working from home employees wake up and go to sleep mere feet away from where they work. Study after study will show that distracted workers are not productive workers. When someone switches gears from one thing to the next without fully devoting their attention to the task at hand, their productivity goes down and the work may suffer. Changing a load of laundry or taking a break to enjoy some sunshine is important throughout the day to get the necessary breaks from work. However, there needs to be dedicated work time that does not involve the daily distractions that might come with working from home. Create some structure around work and break times and make sure others are aware of when employees might not be available. Employees can’t forget to take breaks and to shut off work at the end of the day. Working from home can lead some down a path of feeling like they can never take time for themselves or shut down at the end of the day. Getting away from the computer screen, putting down the phone, and taking some personal time are vital to a productive employee. The office environment lends itself to time spent in the breakroom, catching up with coworkers about their weekends, etc. Working from home does not mean employees should be glued to a computer for 9 hours straight. Take some time during the day and try to shut down work and transition to home life at the end of the day.