Remote working policies: tips from the experts

by Matt Bochenski

Business leaders are realizing remote working can succeed at scale. Here's what you need to know about creating and implementing a robust remote working policy.

Millions of people across the globe have been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the consensus is that remote working is here to stay long after the crisis is over.

There are good reasons for this. People want the flexibility of remote working, and it can give productivity a boost - one study shows remote US workers put in 1.4 more days a month than their office-based counterparts - ultimately benefiting the bottom line.

So how can you build on this success and make the most of the benefits flexibility brings? A remote working policy that contains the right information will play a key role.

Why have a work from home policy?

Everyone in your team knows the rules, right? So there’s no need to have a formal policy if you decide that people can work from home or elsewhere off-site.

Wrong. Remote working is very different from having everyone together in one place. Not having a clear steer on who does what, where, and when can sow confusion and feelings of unfairness which can lead to a disconnect. But it’s a risk companies are taking - over half of them (57%) are operating without a remote working policy.

“Remote working policies are really mandatory now, and I think this has been brought into focus with what’s been going on with COVID-19, especially because it’s proved that many jobs can be done remotely,” says Jason Hicklin, global head of content marketing at NGA Human Resources.

“If you have a policy stating everyone can work from home providing their job can be done from home, then it’s black and white. If you don’t have that in place, then it causes disagreement, because there will be one rule for one person and one rule for another.”

It’s not a matter of laying down the law. “A good remote working policy doesn’t necessarily set out rules and what a business expects from employees. Instead, it should give autonomy and empower your workforce to work in the way that’s best for them, ultimately driving productivity and company success,” says Paul Burrin, Vice President at Sage People.

So what does a remote working policy look like?

Effective work from home policies: the essentials

Not every policy will be the same, but there are a few common areas that deserve attention:

  • Who can work remotely, where and when
  • Equipment
  • Working hours
  • Communication
  • Cybersecurity
  • Goal setting
  • Wellbeing

Let’s look at these individually.

Who can work remotely, where and when

The coronavirus outbreak has revolutionized ideas around which jobs people can do remotely. And that means remote working policies have to change too. And that means remote working policies have to change too.

“Remote working policies historically outlined when and how employees can work from locations other than the office,” says Paul. “Now we can expect the opposite: new policies to determine when and how employees can work from the office.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations were practicing some degree of flexible, remote, and mobile working. 95% of People leaders were already offering flexible working, or plan to, in the next two years, Sage People’s research report The changing face of HR found.

“Paradoxically, a virus has acted as an unforeseen catalyst, accelerating digital transformation across the globe, so that remote working is now the new normal for many.”

This doesn’t mean everyone will work remotely all the time. It’s not necessarily beneficial if employees do. There’s a sweet spot for working remotely, with the most significant employee engagement boost happening when people work off-site 60% to 80% of the time, so that’s worth considering when you put your policy together.

Also think about where people can work. Should remote working only happen at home, or is it OK for people to set up in a shared workspace or work from a coffee shop? Make the rules clear in your policy.

Work equipment

“Organizations should equip employees with the technology they need to do their job easily, regardless of whether their workforce is remote or not,” says Paul, stressing the importance of cloud-based technology for managing the new remote workforce.

Equipment shouldn’t be a grey area. Policies need to state who provides it, who sets it up, and who’s responsible for it. It should also include any rules around using equipment - can people use company laptops in their own time, for example? If so, can they install software on them or use that software on personal devices? And, crucially, what should they do if something goes wrong?

Working hours

Remote working implies flexibility around time - that’s one of the things that makes it so attractive. But if an organization can't manage flexibility, it can become counter-productive, with people doing too much overtime or not being available when they’re needed.

“I think there is a danger that the lines between work and life become so blurred that there is no distinction,” says Jason. “So people will be answering emails at 10 pm and over the weekend, and that is not good from a mental health perspective.”

But autonomy is valuable. “The traditional 9-5 as we know it is dead,” says Paul. “By enabling employees to work hours that are best for them, organizations can boost engagement, productivity, and performance. This is more vital than ever today, with many employees also balancing full-time childcare responsibilities alongside their full-time roles.”

Having clear guidance on working hours, and systems in place to track time will enable you to see whether people are doing too many or too few hours, without compromising on flexibility.

Communication

“Regular, targeted, effective, and personalized two-way communication is essential so that organizations can keep employees informed. This way, they know what’s going on, can ask questions or provide feedback in real-time,” says Paul. But communication is one of the greatest challenges for managers and employees when it comes to remote working.

Lack of it can lead to poor performance, and ultimately, isolation, which is the most common problem among remote workers. That’s why it’s so important not to assume communication will just happen. Set out guidance on when and how meetings will take place. And make sure your communication is two-way, not top-down - you need to know what’s happening with your team, not just cascade information to them. Paul recommends pulse surveys that gauge how your team is feeling and allow you to gain broader insights.

Cybersecurity

People working remotely face different cyber risks to those working on-site. For example, there’s the issue of shoulder surfing and insecure networks in public spaces or shared accommodation. “Even if you're in your own home, someone in the household could see personal information, and that's where there could be potential security breaches,” Jason points out.

Your policy needs to make people aware of the risks, give guidance on avoiding them, and instructions on what to do if security is compromised. Simple steps, like instructing people to lock their laptop screen when they’re away from it, can go a long way.

Goal setting

Knowing what you want to achieve is always important, but without the physical presence of team members and managers to prompt and encourage, goal setting becomes even more vital. So it’s essential to make sure objectives are clear to all team members.

“Setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely) goals, regular check-ins to see how people are progressing (personally and professionally), and discussing ways of resolving challenges while providing ongoing support is vital,” says Paul.

And don’t forget marking the wins: “It’s important to offer encouragement, recognize achievements and celebrate successes,” he adds. “Now is the time to be more human, even if we are less able to be more social.”

Wellbeing

While flexibility offers better work-life balance and a wellbeing boost, remote working can also lead to loneliness, especially for those who aren’t used to it.

“Many people enjoy working from home, but it can be quite isolating after a while, especially for people who live alone,” says Jason. “Mental health needs to feature in your policy to make sure there are regular check-ins with managers and peer groups.”

Emotional intelligence and empathy on the part of managers can also help. “Many employees are finding being on video and in front of a computer hour after hour, day after day, exhausting,” says Paul. “It’s vital to encourage managers to be more relaxed, flexible, and empathetic in ways of working, to help employees to manage stress and maintain wellbeing.”

There can be physical issues with remote working too. A homeworking study showed over half of respondents were experiencing new aches and pains during the coronavirus lockdown. So your policy should recommend people build in time for breaks and exercise.

Working remotely is new to many of us and, like any new way of doing things, will evolve and grow. A remote working policy is just one element of making the most of this new world.

“All of us are having to adapt to living and working differently,” says Paul. “Every employee is unique and will adjust and learn to manage in this evolving environment. Ultimately, organizations should strive to deliver the best employee experiences possible. Great experiences help drive motivation and engagement, improve productivity and retain your best people.”

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