Creating the best remote work policy in the COVID-19 era

Any debate over the value of remote work policy, or the best strategies for ensuring strong productivity when telecommuting, was thrown out the window early in March 2020: When the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 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. But there’s no better time than now to explore the fundamentals of a truly effective remote work policy and go about implementing it – so let’s take a look at those best practices right now:

Creating a policy from scratch

If your organization has only intermittently had employees working from home, there likely wasn’t a formal plan in place when all of this started. Once you ensured that all staff had the necessary equipment to telecommute and formally moved operations out of office, you were winging it – which was probably fine at first. But now it’s high time to set some guidelines in stone, especially since Forbes reported that many believe working from home could remain the norm well after the pandemic subsides.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recommended seeking input from all department heads to determine how moving off-site has affected each team’s operations and how to mitigate any trouble spots or inefficiencies that have arisen from full-time remote work. You can also build off of templates such as this one drafted by the Society for Human Resource Management. Once your policy is created, clearly communicate it to employees and managers and be sure to answer any questions in a timely fashion.

Businesses that already had policies in place for employees who wanted to get their jobs done outside of the in-office work environment, meanwhile, probably had to adjust them to deal with the unprecedented situation of COVID-19. Depending on how things go during the extended work-from-home period, you can make the changes permanent or revert to your old rules.

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 be a bit of difficulty, at first, in trying to apply rules to working from home, as the activity itself is not exactly what you’d call “structured.” Aside from perhaps the most straight-laced professionals, everyone who works at home does things in a more freewheeling way: Alarms are pushed up by an hour or so. Typical workday structures are not the norm. Some people like to run errands, exercise or even meditate mid-shift while at home. Others start fairly late but are also online and working well into the evening.

You don’t have to regulate these varying behaviors in an iron-fisted manner. In fact, doing so may alienate your remote workers in the midst of a situation where people are already scared and ill-at-ease. Staff won’t easily forget anything they perceive as mistreatment or mismanagement after the smoke clears on the current crisis, potentially impacting morale back in the office and hurting long-term retention. All that said, you can’t let productivity leak from the work-from-home environment like a sieve – so there has to be a balance:

  • Setting a specific number of hours remote employees must work each day is reasonable, but SnackNation suggested allowing flexible work by not stipulating exact business hours. Or you can try the reverse, allowing workers to sign off well before quitting time as long as they’ve handled an agreed-upon number of tasks.
  • Remote meetings, client-facing or otherwise, are the only time commitments that should be ironclad. But you can make them easier on employees by not requiring video attendance, or allowing people to join or leave as they’re needed rather than sticking around the whole hour or half-hour.
  • Communication is key to remote work, as BuiltIn noted, but things can get disorganized fast. It’s best to streamline comms through specific channels and stick to them – 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 tech

Tech’s value 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.

Just as importantly, tech can be the centerpiece in HR’s efforts to track attendance, payroll and performance while your entire organization is remote. The eHCM solution from PeopleStrategy is a comprehensive platform that can meet all of these needs as well as recruiting, onboarding and benefits administration, with portals for easy use by supervisors and employees alike. By leveraging this complete, hire-to-retire software tool, you can keep HR operations running smoothly despite the crises and uncertainty outside.