Businesses that have never had a remote workforce entered unfamiliar territory when the UK Government’s stay at home measures came into force. Many were faced with the immediate challenge of transitioning to a work-from-home set up in a short amount of time.
Now that companies are a little more comfortable with remote work, employers should evaluate if they've been keeping up with compliance procedures and policies – even in a virtual setting.
“If you had to throw things together quickly, now is the time to make sure you’re doing everything the right way,” says Chad Sorenson, founder of Adaptive HR Solutions. “Go through and audit your processes.”
Focusing on safety
Employers have a duty of care to follow Health and Safety Executive guidelines and ensure their employees’ safety when working on site. The same applies when working from home.
“There are two aspects to safety,” says Kirsty Duck, an HR consultant at face2faceHR. “As a minimum, employers should look at mitigating risk around stress and mental health and also physical safety, for example, equipment use.”
Employees will be living in a range of circumstances during COVID-19. They could be home alone and feeling lonely or surrounded by energetic children. "Whatever their situation, there will be a level of stress,” says Duck. “Risk can be reduced by keeping in touch regularly, providing access to support services, such as an employee assistance programme, or allowing staff to take equipment home, for example, an adjustable chair so they can work comfortably.”
Sorenson says the bottom line is to remember that “safety issues still apply in the home office.”
“It’s important to provide tips to employees on how to make sure they have a safe workplace – and that if they have an injury while working from home, they still need to report that injury,” he says.
Flexible working hours
Many businesses may have been quick to establish suitable setups for employees working from home. The reality, however, is that working-from-home during a pandemic is not the same as remote work during normal circumstances.
Duck thinks it’s important to remember to be flexible. “People won’t be able to perform in the way they were able to do so in the office,” she says.
“If there is still work to do, practice goodwill and continue to pay employees for their normal hours; or agree short-time hours and reduce workload and pay accordingly,” she adds. “In both cases, allow employees to work flexibly around their own particular personal circumstances.”
With employees often facing the additional pressures of taking care of family needs while trying to get their work done, employers will need to be flexible about performance as well, says Sorenson.
"All employers need to understand that performance and productivity can be impacted for everyone working from home," he says.
Addressing performance issues
One area that becomes challenging in the remote environment is performance – especially for managers who are used to basing performance on time spent at the office.
“There’s a fair amount of flexibility involved and you need to adapt, but you still want to hold employees accountable,” says Tana Session, an organisational development consultant.
If a formal performance issue started before lockdown, employers can continue to address that in line with Acas codes of practice but should be reasonable in adjusting plans, according to Duck. “That could mean reducing the targets in a performance-related plan, for example.”
She also suggests video calls as the next best alternative for performance-related meetings that would otherwise be face-to-face in an office. A video meeting gives managers the ability to maintain “face time” as well as use facial expressions as clues for potential concerns.
Tracking attendance and leave
Without the physical separation of home and work life, employees may forget to report to their managers when they’re taking time off for sick leave or other purposes.
“You have to over-communicate at this point because you don’t have the interaction at the office right now,” says Session.
One strategy she recommends is for managers to send teams friendly reminders to inform them if they’re sick or absent on a day. This also helps managers know when not to expect any work or communication, as well as to monitor lack of performance.
Maintaining data privacy
In a remote working environment, businesses are documenting more things digitally than before. Compliance with data privacy laws may be a bigger challenge since HR documents often contain sensitive employee data, such as birth dates, social security numbers, and payroll banking information. All of that needs to be secured.
HR managers may also see an influx of paperwork if employees need to take sick leave and need to share related documents with their employers.
To maintain data privacy and security, employers need to therefore ensure that those handling sensitive information from home follow best practices. They may include procedures such as:
- Connecting to the company network and applications via a corporate virtual private network (VPN).
- Ensuring devices and applications are up to date.
- Encrypting all data transmission (which means not sending sensitive documents via unencrypted email).
- Maintaining physical safety (such as securing laptops and locking up confidential paperwork).
Businesses should ensure their managers are properly trained on how to effectively manage remote teams.
Session recommends for HR professionals to create regular check-ins with managers. For example, HR could schedule weekly conference calls with managers to discuss concerns, challenges, and strategies – as well as encouraging them to touch base when they have questions or aren't certain how to approach something.
“Managers should lean on HR to walk them through the options and pitfalls before making decisions,” Session says.
Prioritising the essentials
Considering all the new things that HR professionals are dealing with currently, now is not the time to reinvent the wheel. It's great if your business has had time to prepare to work from home, such as making paperwork digital. But it would be difficult to implement steps like these retroactively.
The best thing to do, given the current situation, is to figure out your basic needs and how to meet those needs most efficiently. Nonessential HR processes, just like non-essential travel, may have to be put on hold for the meantime.