The Current Lowdown On Remote Workers

The Current Lowdown On Remote Workers

040617_Thinkstock_536923559_lores_kwIBM, which has pioneered remote working for decades, recently joined some big name businesses that are now banning that practice.

The technology giant banned telecommuting or remote working for its marketing department in the United States. The move means the company has joined the likes of Yahoo, Google and Best Buy. Those businesses also generally don’t allow remote work.

Pretty much since it began, remote work has been controversial. Some of the major questions surrounding the issue are:

  1. Are remote workers more or less productive or creative?
  2. Are they more satisfied or more isolated?
  3. Do they feel more or less valued?

In an effort to answer these questions, Polycom, which provides voice, video and content collaboration solutions, commissioned a survey of 24,000-plus workers in 12 countries — including Canada. While the results varied by country, three key trends remained constant:

  • 62% of the global working population currently takes advantage of flexible working practices,
  • 98% say being able to work from anywhere boosts performance, and
  • 92% say they believe video conferencing or collaboration helps improve workplace relationships and teamwork.

(There are many pros and cons to the issue that are listed in the chart on the right.)

So let’s say you’re leaning toward offering your employees the chance to work remotely. Appropriate oversight will be necessary to avoid potential fraud and abuses that can wipe out many, if not all, of the benefits associated with a work-from-home program.

Before allowing employees to commute to their home-based desks, answer the following questions to help ensure that you minimize the risks and maximize the returns of the program:

1. Which jobs make sense from home?

There are numerous positions within a company that, despite pleas to the contrary from employees, aren’t suitable candidates for a work-from-home program.

For example, allowing a manager with a broad span of control to work at home is typically not a good idea. Managing by phone is often far less effective than being physically present. Also, employees may resent that their manager works from home while they’re stuck in the office.

Before announcing a work-from-home program, identify all of the positions that won’t be allowed to participate. Be sure to engage your company’s legal counsel to ensure that the process doesn’t violate employment law or create employee relations issues.

Pros Cons
Cost savings. Having employees work from home can reduce the demand for office space and also cut facility operating and parking costs. Not for everyone. Some employees fear less “face time” will reduce their chances for promotion. Others need or want an office environment.
Work/ life balance. There is more time for employees to care for their loved ones and address home emergencies. Time disputes. 

Without a system to record hours, disputes may arise over the time actually worked.

It’s green. Reducing the number of commutes to the workplace saves fuel, reduces vehicle carbon emissions and traffic congestion. Performance fears. Managers may equate remote work with an automatic drop in performance and may need to adjust to a culture oriented toward results more than toward processes.
Continuity. Working from home may mean that at least some of your company’s operations can continue during a snowstorm, natural disaster, terrorist attack or other emergency. Security. The IT infrastructure must be properly designed. Some jobs may simply not be able to be performed at home for security reasons.
Accommodation. Working from home can better accommodate individuals with disabilities. Friction. Staffers in the workplace may resent remote workers.
Performance may be enhanced. Remote workers may exceed their performance in the traditional workplace. Many report that they convert the old drive time into productive working hours. There may be fewer interruptions and absenteeism may drop. Performance may suffer. Outside a traditional structure, some employees may lose productivity by cleaning house, watching their young children, watching television or being otherwise distracted.
Job satisfaction. Working from home can increase personal freedom and flexibility, improve morale, and decrease stress. Safety. There may be liabilities if employees are injured off-site. Consult with your attorney.
Retention and recruitment. Offering a work-at-home option can boost your company’s attractiveness in the job market and lead to reduced turnover. Equipment cost, loss and damage. You must address who pays for equipment, how it is to be used and what to do if it is lost, stolen or damaged.
Staying in touch. Using instant messaging, conference calls, webinars, collaboration software and other technology can help employees feel less isolated. Team conflicts. Relationship problems among remote teams can be harder to resolve than those among on-site employees.

2. Which employees will be eligible?

For employees that are underperforming or have a track record of discipline issues, working from home may be viewed as an opportunity to “hide out” and avoid the scrutiny that comes from working in an office. Together with your human resources department, develop criteria that employees must meet in order to be considered for the program.

For example, you might require candidates to earn a “meets expectations” rating in their performance reviews and have no outstanding discipline issues.

3. How will you monitor productivity?

There’s an assumption that once employees are allowed to work from home their productivity will at least be equal to their “in office” performance — or may even be better. This may be true, but for employees who have never worked from home before, the distractions of home life (including a significant other, young children, noisy next-door neighbors or just plain loneliness) may be too much to bear and their productivity may actually decline.

This begs the question: Once an employee is out of sight, how will their performance be monitored? There are a number of technology solutions that can track keystrokes, periodically capture pictures of the employee’s computer screen as well as record activity within specific software systems. Regardless of the approach used, there should be some ways to track productivity and performance.

4. How will you communicate?

How many times have you misread and misunderstood an email? That kind of problem can be multiplied when staff is at home. Distance can lead to miscommunication and workers falling off the same page.

In the Polycom survey, 62% of respondents said they want access to collaboration technology to connect with their colleagues and 92% surveyed said they believe that video collaboration technology helps improve relationships and fosters better teamwork. The study also showed that an employee’s reliance on technology, especially video conferencing, actually drives them to pick up the phone more regularly. Two-thirds said their favorite colleagues work in a different location.

Video conferences and chats can help remote workers feel less isolated and you’ll be able to pick up on visual cues, reactions to changes and employees’ overall moods.

Chat apps or instant messaging also help. They will let everyone know who’s available once they sign in and allow for quick, short conversations without the telephone, which often involves more time than you want to spend.

Make time for small talk. When talking with employees on the telephone or on video, use some of the time to talk about more than work. Build rapport. It will help you work through any problems that may arise later. Showing you care is important to employees and will make them like working for you more. And have longer talks on occasion, where you can discuss their goals.

5. Should home workers use company computers?

An employee’s personal computer may not have the most up-to-date virus software in place and that raises the risk that the person could download a virus that could affect both the home computer and the company’s entire network. It’s also conceivable that the employee’s computer can be accessed by other members of the family. That raises concerns of data loss or theft, as well as disclosure of customers’ private information.

There can also be problems if an employee is working on a personally-owned computer and the employer receives an e-discovery request. Electronically stored information is routinely requested in civil and criminal proceedings. Complying can be difficult if, for example, an employer doesn’t know what files or records employees have on their home computers or if an employee alters files or destroys them after an e-discovery request is received.

If possible, remote employees should only be allowed to use company-issued computers. Doing so ensures that the employee’s computer is subject to the same virus and system upgrades as other company-issued devices and reduces the risk that your business will be unable to comply with an e-discovery request.

6. What happens if data does go “missing?”

Allowing employees to work in their home offices can give them the false impression that no one is watching what they’re actually doing with company data. Before your company launches a work-from-home program, think about the data that remote employees can access as well as what would happen if that data were lost, stolen or misplaced.

For example, if an employee working from home steals confidential data, how would your company know? If the employee was the victim of a home invasion and the company laptop was stolen, several issues arise:

  • How much company data is stored on that laptop?
  • Is it encrypted?
  • What could your company do to limit or mitigate the potential damage?

7. What about expenses?

The potential for expense fraud and abuse by remote employees can also be a concern. One simple way to combat expense fraud by work-from-home employees is to ensure they’re appropriately identified in the company’s expense reimbursement system as remote employees.

For example, an expense reimbursement system could require that employees include their home office or base on their expense statements. For remote employees that designation could appear as Remote or VE (virtual employee) or WFH (work from home). The actual naming convention isn’t important. What is important is that your company can periodically target expense reimbursement requests from remote employees to ensure that expenses are reasonable, consistent with their remote status and consistent with company policy.

With appropriate policies and safeguards in place, you can help ensure that your company reaps the benefits of a work-from-home program and that employees perform at their best, whether they’re working down the hall in the workplace, in their homes or in off-site offices far away.

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