While many of us are at home, sheltering in place due to the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus, we are still able to perform many valuable services for our clients due to the availability of technology solutions that allow us to serve and respond to their needs regardless where we are physically located. Surely this will change the definition of “workplace” forever and provide flexibility for both employers and employees, and the customers they serve, now and in the future.
Managing and leading a distributed workforce is not, however, without its challenges. There are several steps an agency should take in implementing work-from-home or “telecommuting” as it has become known, whether it’s on a short- or long-term basis.
Set the Policy
First, you should establish a telecommuting policy that will help as you navigate the requests (or mandates) that employees work from home. Without a clear policy, it is likely the employer will encounter issues of unfair treatment or favoritism when selecting employees to telecommute. Some specific policy issues are:
- What is the exact criteria or circumstance under which an employee is eligible to telecommute?
- What type of physical surroundings are required and how will equipment be provided and maintained, keeping in mind any ergonomic or workplace safety requirements?
- Will there be any payments due the employee for reimbursement of expenses in working from home, such as increased utilities and Internet service?
- What level of physical presence will be required for organizational meetings and events?
- Will you require physical separation (i.e., an office) from the home during work hours?
- Are remote employees permitted to care for children, animals or other family members during work hours?
- Communicate whether remote work is a temporary situation and may be discontinued and under what circumstances.
You may wish to have a different policy for different categories of employees. Account Managers or other non-exempt employees may have one policy while Producers (generally, exempt employees) have another. It would be a good idea to have remote employees sign a separate telecommuting agreement or include this information in your employee handbook.
Properly Document Hours and Comply with Wage and Hour Requirements
Where an employee works is not generally part of the criteria for establishing whether or not they are an exempt or non-exempt employee in most states. You should always consult a qualified attorney before making that determination and discuss with him or her your telecommuting policy to ensure you are in compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations. The most important issues in terms of documentation of hours worked are to:
- Maintain accurate records of hours worked;
- Ensure employees comply with required meal and rest breaks;
- Set and enforce a policy regarding overtime and under what circumstances it may be paid; and
- Make sure no one is “working off the clock” – a real temptation when working from home.
With automation, it’s relatively easy to determine the time spent working in the agency. Activity reports can show the amount of time spent processing certain transactions. Phone and Internet logs can be periodically monitored to identify the amount of non-work activity, if any. Time stamps on emails and other communication can reveal if employees are adhering to the policy. Remember to focus on outcomes, not simply time spent. When associates know what is expected of them and perform, you can be less concerned about what they were doing every minute of every day.
Keep in mind that you may have remote workers in a different state than where the agency is located and thus you may have to comply with additional laws and regulations for the state of residence versus the physical location of the agency. Needless to say, remote employees are still subject to the provisions of the workers compensation laws of the state in which they work and this can be very complicated in terms of jurisdiction.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
A great deal of unofficial learning takes place in an office environment when employees interact with peers and others, listen to conversations, bounce ideas off each other, and generally have greater access to information. Remote employees will be cut off from this organic flow of information, so you will have to make even more of an effort to include them in your communication. You will want to actively seek and provide feedback to remote employees, touching base with them on a daily basis to ensure they feel engaged and supported. You might assign a “buddy” whose responsibility is to reach out to the remote employee on a regular basis to see how they are handling the negative aspects of not being physically present with their co-workers. You can even create a virtual “water cooler” where remote employees can pop in and have formal and informal conversations with colleagues by using the available technology.
Whenever possible, include remote employees in any social gatherings or have them work in the office on a regular schedule, such as one week of each month or a day or two each week. You might think this would be difficult to manage, but it really isn’t. Your agency’s clients need not even be aware that the employee they are dealing with is a remote worker, and that’s a sure sign that you have managed the process well.
I was recently working with a group of current and prospective agency leaders and the topic of remote employees came up. This is certainly not a new concept and we know of many agencies who have successfully used remote workers for various functions for more than a decade, long before the COVID-19 scare. What was fascinating, and perplexing, was the amount of resistance to the idea, especially among relatively young managers and owners. Without the freedom and flexibility remote work offers, it will be extremely difficult to solve our current talent crisis. There simply will not be a sufficient supply of talented, passionate and enthusiastic team members all within an easy commute of your office. And at the end of the day, service to our customers does not require us to convene in a particular location each day, but rather to deliver great experiences to them, regardless from where they emanate.