Businesses across industries are implementing work-from-home policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When preparing for this change, business owners and leaders should consider communication, technology and compliance, among other things.
In a typical scenario, planning could take months, but many businesses don’t have that luxury now. This short guide provides an overview of building a work-from-home policy.
1. Prepare your workforce.
Start by figuring out which roles can be remote, either partially or completely. This will vary widely based on the type of business.
Then, you’ll need to know if the employees in those roles have the basic technology, such as high-speed internet and a home computer if you’re not able to issue corporate laptops. Keep in mind that you may need to pay to upgrade some employees' internet or mobile plans, or provide a stipend for technology.
Changing their workplace from an office setting can be disorienting for employees who’ve never done it before.
“Give employees a checklist for how to set up their own home office,” recommends Chad Sorenson, president of Jacksonville, Florida firm Adaptive HR Solutions and president-elect of HR Florida State Council.
The checklist should include tips such as how to identify the best location for a workspace and how to prepare your family to minimize interruptions.
2. Set expectations.
The change is not only in the physical environment but also in how employees do their work and communicate.
"The biggest key to success is communication and setting expectations," Sorensen says. "Have a conversation and put it in writing, whether it's via email or a document you've outlined."
Expectations should include things like:
- How often they should check in and how.
- What they should be communicating, whether that's daily updates, reports about achieved goals or completed projects, or challenges encountered.
- What changes you're making from normal operations or day-to-day activities.
- What work needs to be done or services provided to clients, despite the changes.
Prepare to adjust your expectations and add leeway. Not only are employees working in an unfamiliar environment, but some tasks may take longer. For example, providing daily updates requires both team members and managers to spend more time reading and writing emails.
"We're expecting a small reduction in productivity due to the fact of being home around family and other distractions," says David Batchelor, co-founder and president of small telecommunications company DialMyCalls.
DialMyCalls has a dozen employees in Florida and Texas, with half of them already remote. Batchelor says that to prepare the entire staff for the possibility of going remote, the company engaged employees to come up with a plan that will work for everyone.
"Do not dictate a plan you think works—ask for feedback," he says.
3. Create communication procedures.
Communication platforms such as Slack or Microsoft Teams and videoconferencing apps like Zoom and Skype are some of the main tools employees will need to communicate and collaborate remotely. Compared to asynchronous email, a major benefit of platforms like these is that they allow for real-time communication — a makeshift replacement for face-to-face meetings. Realize there will be limitations, as not everyone has the internet bandwidth for video calls or a webcam on the home computer.
At Continued, a company that provides online continuing education (and has more than 100 remote employees), managers have regularly scheduled calls with direct reports to review projects and goals.
"Intentional touch-bases across teams ensure projects stay on track," says Asher Primrose, human resources director for the LaCalle Group, parent company of continued.
4. Provide tools.
Other tools to consider include project-management platforms such as Monday.com, Asana and Basecamp; and online-sharing apps such as Google Suite and Microsoft SharePoint—as well as tools for communicating with clients.
At San Antonio law firm Hoeslcher Gebbia Cepeda, PLLC, preparations for conducting remote meetings with clients and working from home took only a few hours. This included problem-solving scenarios, downloading videoconferencing apps on laptops and testing the technology in a mock meeting.
You may have to do some things on the fly, but as you make decisions, you need to do it equitably across the organization. Each manager can't decide independently what do with their employees.
—Chad Sorenson, president, Adaptive HR Solutions
To accommodate different client preferences, the firm downloaded and tested several videoconferencing apps on each of the 12 laptops that attorneys and support staff will take home.
"That's the advantage of being a small business—we can adapt," says Joseph Hoeslcher, the firm’s managing attorney. "We wanted to cover the bases by downloading the most popular programs."
5. Consider data privacy and security.
Working outside of the corporate IT infrastructure has implications for data security, especially if you're not able to provide company laptops.
"Remote-access solutions and internet-facing servers should be patched and secured with two-factor or multi-factor authentication, with connections made through a virtual private networks (VPN)," advises Christian Mairoll, CEO of cybersecurity company Emsisoft, which is based in New Zealand and employs about 40 people working remotely around the world.
For businesses that can't provide devices for working at home, he recommends ensuring that the employee's home device has patched versions of the most recent operating system and software.
"It wouldn't be good to have an employee processing sensitive data and accessing the company network using an outdated operating system like Windows XP that's shared with kids who surf the web," he says.
In those types of cases, consider alternatives. Ask these questions:
- Are employees cross-trained, allowing them to swap roles temporarily so only those with secure devices handle sensitive data?
- If some employees have corporate laptops as well as more secure home computers, could they temporarily "loan" their company-owned devices to others?
- Could the employee take home the entire computer workstation, if necessary?
- Could the employee work from home on limited tasks, and either defer anything related to sensitive data to a team member, postpone the task if it's not critical, or work at the office for part of the time to handle it?
Hoeslcher Gebbia Cepeda, PLLC, for example, has to maintain strict attorney-client privilege, which may be difficult for those attorneys with young children at home. They also need to see some clients in person to prepare for court appearances. In those instances, they will come to the office, and they've instituted separate zones and other procedures to maintain safety.
Additionally, Mairoll notes that it's best practice to use a secure, cloud-based backup to store any sensitive files. If that's not an option, require the employee to encrypt the personal device, he recommends.
6. Maintain compliance.
Compliance doesn't stop in extraordinary circumstances. HR Florida State Council's Sorenson says a work-from-home policy needs to provide flexibility, but it needs to be uniform. Compliance includes paying both exempt and nonexempt employees appropriately, as well as administering relevant policies.
"You may have to do some things on the fly, but as you make decisions, you need to do it equitably across the organization. Each manager can't decide independently what do with their employees," Sorenson says. "Write a memo to yourself as to why you did what you did so if someone questions it down the road, you can say why."
7. Stay flexible.
Many employees will have young children at home because schools are closed. Expect to hear—or see—children in the background during meetings, and remember that family distractions will take a bite out of productivity.
But just as important, put yourself in the employees' shoes, says Teresa Douglas, a mother of two kids, ages 9 and 10, who works remotely as an operations and people manager for Kaplan Test Prep.
"Ask how you can help them get their work done during this trying time," says Douglas, who's the co-author of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams. "Tell them that you know they're doing the best they can. That will go a long way in helping your team stay productive."
8. Create trust and accountability.
Business leaders who are new to working from home may not realize that the culture in a remote environment is different not only because you're communicating and collaborating virtually. Remote work relies on trust and accountability.
"Managers must set clear expectations and trust their team members to get their job done," Primrose of the LaCalle Group says. "The most important aspect of virtual work is establishing a culture of trust."
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