Telecommuting and flexible work arrangements are becoming an increasingly common workplace perk. The option to work outside the office, even just occasionally, is a dream come true for employees who long for better work-life balance. But without guidelines, managing remote employees can quickly become a boss's worst nightmare.
"Allowing people to work from home is a perk that effectively attracts and retains top talent in a competitive market," said Brian Shapland,general manager of office furniture company turnstone. "But there are factors to consider when giving your team the green light to work outside the office, like the impact it may have on employee engagement, team connectivity and the vibrancy of your office culture."
As your company grows, it's a good idea to put a formal telecommuting program in place to help you keep track of employees who choose to work remotely, and make sure everyone is performing at their peak, regardless of location. Experts shared four important issues to keep in mind when crafting your official policy. [No Face Time? No Problem: How to Keep Virtual Workers Engaged]
The first thing any employer needs to consider when deciding on a remote work policy is whether the employees' attitudes, work ethics and personalities align with the expectations of telecommuting. Being able to work from home sounds like a nice companywide perk in theory, but not everyone has the ability to be productive when the boss isn't right down the hall to check up on them.
Scott Slater, whose burger franchise Slater's 50/50 doesn't have a corporate office, said telecommuting is conducive to a specific type of person, one who is not only able to work outside of a traditional office setting, but can also hold himself and others accountable.
"Choose people on your team who can thrive in that type of environment," Slater said. "Make sure there is a strong stance on accountability."
To prevent employees from taking advantage of a remote work policy, Kim Davis, senior vice president of corporate human resources at benefits broker NFP, advised setting eligibility guidelines. These can include the nature of the position, how long a person has been at the company/in the role, past job performance and how frequently a staff member can telecommute (full time, once a week, once a month, etc.).
Expectations for work hours
For geographically dispersed teams, or in cases where remote work helps to accommodate for family schedules and obligations, official "business hours" may vary from person to person. Employers need to trust their telecommuters and give them the freedom to do their jobs in a way that works for them. However, regardless of their work hours, employees also need to be held accountable for their assigned jobs by adhering to company expectations.
"Perhaps the most important thing organizations can do ... is set clear expectations with their employees," Shapland told Business News Daily. "Remote workers should be available during office hours, must meet deadlines and complete projects with excellence and maintain communication with their manager and co-workers. Workers who do not meet these expectations risk losing the trust of leadership and sidelining their team."
"It is important to provide very specific guidelines and policies for employees to review and acknowledge [regarding] the telecommuting arrangement," Davis added. "A quiet and private work space is still needed [in the home], and work hours require full attention and dedication — no watching the kids while trying to work."
Equipment and cybersecurity
While productivity and accountability may be top of mind for employers who give their staff the freedom to telecommute, an often overlooked element of remote work is the security of the corporate data workers are accessing outside of the secure office network. Hunter Hoffmann, head of U.S. communications at small business insurer Hiscox, recommended keeping a close eye on the devices and programs employees use when they work from home, and setting up safeguards against any potential hacks or breaches.
"Enabling employees to work remotely opens up the likelihood that they'll use their work devices to communicate via unsecured public networks like those at coffee shops," Hoffmann said. "Password-protect all business devices [and] make sure that data going out from [those devices] is encrypted. Keep a current inventory of all devices and make sure each one has its GPS tracking turned on. Additionally, install technology to remotely wipe data from any device that has been lost or stolen."
Davis noted that if company-issued devices are taken home for remote work, employees should be aware that the equipment and any programs on them are to be used only for work-related purposes.
In many offices, instant messaging and chat services have become the communication method of choice due to their ease-of-use and convenience. It makes sense to have the whole team connect with each other through these text-based platforms for quick discussions and collaboration, but employees who aren't physically there need the benefits of face-time, like their in-office colleagues have.
Ideally, remote workers should be able to come into the office once in a while, but failing that, frequent phone calls and video conferences should be part of your regular communication repertoire.
"Nothing replaces the in-person meeting, voice call or Skype meeting," Slater said. "This type of communication not only builds comradery, but it's also important to be able to see and listen to the tone of someone's voice, as emails can often get lost in translation."
A common concern about remote work is that company culture will suffer if employees don't all show up at the office every day. Staff members who telecommute similarly fear that they'll miss out on important office bonding time by not seeing their co-workers face-to-face. With the appropriate use of communications technology, companies can make sure their culture remains intact, even with full-time telecommuters.
As a full-time telecommuter, Reid Travis, director of marketing at Pancheros Mexican Grill, said that video-integrated chat programs like Google Hangouts have been a lifeline for his company's culture. Sharing photos of office events, setting up a dedicated "fun talk" chat and having remote team members participate in chats and meetings have all helped to make the staff as a whole feel more connected.
"It's easy to feel disengaged and no longer included [as a telecommuter]," Travis said. "Make sure the person still feels like part of the team — it feeds your overall productivity [and makes] you feel like you're making strides and impacts, even from far away."