Teleworking During COVID-19 and Beyond: Will Employers Rise to the Occasion?

While some states are beginning to lift shelter-in-place orders, they are also pushing employers to allow employees who can, to continue working remotely. Teleworking has become the new normal, and this working arrangement may not be going away any time soon.

Previously, employers could be selective in choosing their workforce best suited to the teleworking arrangement. Individuals that fit the bill tended to be self-disciplined, well organized and were in a position where they could work independently with minimal supervision. In addition to employee attributes, evaluating whether that individual had the physical and technical resources to work at home played into the business decision.

Employers now have no choice, and face the challenge of the majority, if not all of their employees, working from home either full or part-time. For some employees, this new arrangement may be an extension of the usual business, but for many, this is uncharted territory.

As the initial shock of moving to a home office has passed, we must transition from just doing “the best we can” – to making sure our employees have what they need to sustain a productive, engaging, and motivating work life outside of the office walls. What equipment, resources, training, and support must employers provide?

Provide Tools and Equipment

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and recent surveys by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), over two-thirds of the workforce have never worked from home. Of those that have, the vast majority only do so one to two days a week, and over one third do not have a dedicated spot in their home to do so. Therefore, we should not assume that employees already have the tools they need.

Ensure Remote Set-Up Will Support Longer-Term Telework

  • Ensure there are plans and processes in place to protect the organization’s intellectual property, making sure your IT systems are secure and user-friendly for employees.
  • Designate an individual or team who is responsible for assisting employees and providing suggestions for setting up their home office. Even if employees have been working from home for some time now, check in periodically to evaluate the effectiveness of their workspace.
  • Allow employees time to attend training and practice using any new tools, software, and equipment. There will be a learning curve. Provide accessible resources or toolkits for frequently asked questions, and be patient and understanding that typical work tasks and projects may take longer to complete at first.
  • Advise employees to follow specific security measures when working from home, such as using file cabinets with locks, setting up confidential password systems, following log-in and log-out computer protocols, and limiting access to the work area by non-employees.
  • Develop or Revise your telecommuting policies and make sure all remote workers receive it. Policies can assist with clarifying expectations, work hours, how to get office supplies, safety, and potential confidentially concerns.
  • Do not require employees to incur costs for the extra tools and equipment needed, especially during these stressful times when employees might be worried about cash flow. In addition, there may be FLSA ramifications if costs take employees below minimum wage.

Address Common Frustrations

Employers must understand some of the everyday stresses these new remote workers are experiencing.

  • Feelings of isolation that are compounded by additional care-giving responsibilities. Many employees are not only taking care of children at home but also assuming the role of teachers to support online schooling.
  • Decreased interaction and support from co-workers that they are accustomed to seeing daily.
  • Juggling work, increased family obligations, and taking care of elderly family or neighbors that are high risk, ill, or self-quarantined.
  • Blurred lines between work and personal time, and difficulty unplugging for needed breaks, meals, and when the workday is finished. Even with the best intentions in helping employees get set up at home, many will still be working from kitchens, family rooms, or dining room tables, which sometimes creates the feeling of needing to be constantly on-call or available, resulting in additional stress and burn-out.
  • Frustrations with technology and adjusting to this new way of working.
  • Lack of equipment or feeling inadequate if they are having trouble with using new tools such as video conferencing, or other work methods. Along with this, employees may be hesitant to share struggles that they are experiencing for fear of losing their jobs due to poor performance.

Provide Day-to-Day Support

  • Initiate a communication plan. Increase company-wide touches (emails, town hall meetings) as appropriate to keep employees apprised of overall business operations.
  • Train your front-line supervisors and give them the communication and technology tools they need to manage remote-workers. Many of them have only managed employees at a physical worksite. They, too, will need help managing employees through this change.
  • Ensure supervisors provide ongoing daily communications to employees that are tailored to their individual needs. Key practices:
    • Clarify work parameters like core working hours, the importance of taking and recording break and meal periods, and guidance on creating work vs. personal time boundaries at the start of the teleworking arrangement, and on an ongoing basis.
    • Set clear expectations of performance and practicing listening with trust and respect. Supervisors should help their staff in prioritizing workload and deadlines, perhaps focusing on daily reports without micromanaging.
    • Model suggested behavior by discussing strategies and practices that work for them and sharing with employees that they are experiencing similar challenges.
    • Encourage brainstorming for solutions and alternative ways employees could accomplish their work while balancing business and individual needs.
    • Check in with employees informally about how they are doing, and keep an eye out for signs that the employee may be struggling or having issues they have not shared.
    • Recognize good work and highlight accomplishments in adjusting to this new situation. Employees are not in the office getting the informal day-to-day encouragement, so we need to be aware of how we can provide even small informal recognition and reminders to employees that they are valued and appreciated. Ideas might include electronic restaurant gift cards, an extra hour or two of paid time off, or even a simple thank you, or funny video sent their way. Tailor the rewards to the situation and resources available.
  • Allow time and a platform for co-workers to share common problems and wins with the group. Typically, these are things that happen naturally in the office workspace, breakrooms, and informal discussion. It is important to the well-being of the employees and to improved workforce practices and productivity that these types of discussions continue.
  • Be flexible! Even with the best of intentions, employees may need to take paid time off or work different than normal hours to complete their work. Being open to a range of work hours (or recommended core hours) to help employees take care of their increased personal responsibilities and their well-being can go along way for all involved.

Other Ways to Keep Spirits Up

  • Remind employees of resources available to them through your health plan or Employee Assistance Program.
  • Share lists of local resources to help with guidance, personal struggles, stress, financial advising, or grief counseling.
  • Develop fun and inexpensive ways for employees to connect outside of work; for example, game playing like Video Bingo, virtual movie watching parties, or meeting up with colleagues for virtual workouts, just to name a few. Talk to your tech-savvy employees – they use these types of virtual social avenues all the time!
  • Meet up virtually for lunch with co-workers.
  • Research fun free apps for workouts, meditation, and online events that employees can attend. Employer-sponsored gym memberships may also host free online content. In addition, apps and public libraries are launching free children’s books, virtual coloring, and limited-time book downloads during this time.

Employers must also remember workplace legal implications, whether we have employees working on-site or remotely. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), applicable state wage and hour regulations, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), extended sick pay and leave provisions under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Worker’s Compensation, and federal and state anti-discrimination law still apply.

We are all in this together. Be patient, kind, and understanding in these uncertain times. Managing successfully and keeping employees engaged and productive will reap great benefits for your organization in the future. Strategies and lessons learned by adapting to the challenges with a remote workforce will present expanded opportunities for recruiting, employee development, retention, employee satisfaction, and ultimately will ensure continued business operations into the future.