Creating a remote work policy for COVID-19 and beyond

Any debate over the value of having – or need for – a remote work policy was thrown out the window just last month. When the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 working from home became a literal matter of life and death for a vast majority of office-bound businesses, across countless industries.

Chances are you’ve long since sent home your employees to do their jobs remotely on personal computers and mobile devices. You and your team members have been managing under the government-recommended (or, in some cases, strictly enforced) guidelines for social distancing, staying home as much as possible and keeping the business up and running as best you can. At some point (we all hope sooner rather than later), offices will reopen and employees will begin to return to work. Why not make sure the remote work policy you put in place for COVID-19 will stand the test of time? Here are some best practices for creating and implementing an effective remote work policy:

If you are starting from scratch

If your company did not have a high population of remote employees prior to COVID-19, you probably did not have a formal plan in place. Now that you’ve gotten through the logistics of ensuring your employees have the necessary equipment to work from home, it’s important to put some guidelines in place, especially if working from home remains the norm well after the pandemic subsides.

PeopleStrategy partner, ThinkHR, provides a Sample Work from Home Policy on it’s COVID-19 Crisis Response Center, which it has made available to everyone, not just it’s clients. This is a great resource to help you get started. Additionally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recommended seeking input from all department heads to find out how having to work remotely has affected operations so you can address concerns or inefficiencies when writing your policy. If you have an employment attorney that can review the policy for you, it wouldn’t hurt. Once your policy is created, you must clearly communicate it to employees and managers and be sure to answer any questions in a timely fashion. 

If you had a remote work policy in place prior to the unprecedented situation of COVID-19, you may want to revisit it to ensure it covers any new situations that came to light with a greater population of remote employees.

Creating the best remote work policy in the COVID-19 eraRemote work policy should strike a good balance between firmness and flexibility.

Walking the tightrope of rules and expectations

There can some challenges trying to apply rules to working from home, as the activity itself is not exactly what you’d call “structured.” Typical workday structures are not the norm. Some people like to run errands, exercise or even meditate mid-shift while at home. Others may start and end their day later while others prefer to start and end their day earlier.

This can be difficult to manage but it is important, especially now, to maintain focus on what is most important – making sure productivity is maintained while allowing for a variation on how and when work is performed. Here are some ideas on how to ensure productivity is maintained:

  • Establishing guidelines in terms of the number of hours worked or tasks completed. While setting a specific number of hours remote employees must work each day is reasonable, it is not always necessary to stipulate exact business hours. You also could establish a policy that employees can “sign-off early” as long as they’ve handled an agreed-upon number of tasks.
  • Provide management with guidelines on when it is acceptable to contact employees. One challenge remote employees can face is feeling like they are always on the clock. You can address this by stating management can not expect employees to be accessible after normal business hours and clearly establishing what those hours are.
  • Communication is critical with a remote workforce, as BuiltIn noted, but things can get disorganized fast. It’s best to streamline your communications through specific channels and be consistent with which tools are to be used. For example, videoconferencing tools like Skype, Zoom or GoToMeeting for meetings, messaging channels like Slack or Gchat for casual conversation, and emails or calls for more confidential matters. This keeps employees from getting overwhelmed or confused.
  • Seek regular feedback from employees at all levels and be willing to modify your remote work policy when it’s not as effective as it could be.
Maintaining compliance

Many things are different for companies in a post-pandemic world, but critical regulations have not changed. If any of your employees aren’t exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act requirements, accurate timekeeping – which is valuable as a productivity measure by any standard – becomes even more important, per the National Law Review. Also, standards ranging from those governing discrimination and harassment in the workplace to HIPAA protections and I-9 compliance all remain in effect for remote businesses. HR must manage them just as diligently as it would if everything were still in-office.

Protecting and leveraging technology

The value technology brings to remote work means it must be closely protected. For example, staff devices connected to a dedicated company network can be simultaneously attacked despite being in multiple locations. Along similar lines, consider how often hackers have disrupted corporate Zoom conferences in the last several weeks. As Fortune pointed out, these attacks are usually more annoying than actively harmful, but hackers can still exploit such vulnerabilities to spy or steal data, so you should commission IT to develop cybersecurity and device-use guidelines as a supplement to remote work policy. And make sure employees know to report any suspicious activities immediately.