How to: Manage Remote WorkersPosted in : How To... with Dr. Gerry McMahon on 14 October 2020
All 5 levels of the Government's recently issued ‘Resilience and Recovery 2020-21 Plan for Living with Covid-19’ entail working from home. Indeed, since the onset of Covid-19, remote working has shot to the top of the ‘people management’ charts. This dramatic ascent is evident from a Central Statistics Office (CSO) estimate at the turn of the millennium, which found that remote, or the equivalent teleworking, represented under 4% of the workforce. This contrasts sharply with the European Foundation’s 2020 finding, that home-only telework rates are now as high as 47%, whilst the Behaviour and Attitudes survey for RTE puts the homeworking figure at 42%.
The ESRI also records that before the crisis only about 14% of employees in Ireland occasionally, or usually worked from home. However, as three-quarters of IBEC’s members concur, the main long-term impact of the crisis will be that remote or flexible working will remain standard business practice. In a similar vein, last month’s Amarach employee opinion survey revealed a ‘huge appetite for working from home with more than 80% of respondents in favour, preferring a hybrid model with a blend of office-based work and remote activities’. This coincides with research from the National University of Galway (NUG) and the Western Development Commission (WDC), finding that a significant majority (83%) would like to continue with remote arrangements when the crisis is over.
As the aforementioned Amarach research found, these arrangements have been enthusiastically embraced by employees, with 7 in 10 of those working at home during the crisis finding it to be a positive experience. This also tallies with the aforementioned European Foundation’s EU-wide survey finding, that (post-Covid) 78% of employees would like to work from home at least occasionally. Likewise, global research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that the demand for remote work is going to rise by 30% over the coming decade due to the demands of Gen Z, whilst the respected Global Workplace Analytics’ survey found that almost 90% of all employees would like to work remotely at least some of the time. A consequential upshot of this preference is evident in Littler’s recent poll of more than 750 European employers, finding that 41 % have already plans to make it easier for staff to keep working remotely once offices reopen.
The transition to homeworking is also apparent with major international companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Fujitsu, Siemens and Twitter making it a permanent option, whilst multinationals including Ford, Amazon and Google plan to remain fully remote until at least 2021. This accords with PWC’s finding that 60% of Irish-based companies are exploring options to make remote working a permanent option.
A knock-on of this relocation trend is Google’s recent abandonment of plans to rent office space in Dublin's Docklands for 2,000 employees. This decision aligns with KPMG’s survey of large company CEOs, finding that more than two-thirds plan to downsize office space. The commitment to this change is also painfully evident in Pinterest’s pay-out of ~€80m for the cancellation of an office lease in San Francisco. Allied to Laya Healthcare’s recent estimate that returning employees to Irish workplaces could cost ~€10 bn., remote working is surely here to stay.
Of course, for many years, the practice of remote or homeworking has been officially endorsed and promoted. Only last year the Department of Business (DBEI) extolled its virtues, noting its capacity to improve productivity, attract and retain talent and assist in the transition to a low carbon economy. However, as noted above, in one fell swoop Covid-19 has done what decades of official endorsements and union demands have failed to do. That is, for many workers, remote working is now standard fare and is here to stay. Or as a Silicon Republic spokesperson recently pointed out, pre-Covid remote working was a ‘benefit but now it’s a requirement’.
Advantages of Remote Working
According to the DBEI, employers can benefit from remote working, via access to a broader pool of talent, enhanced retention levels, increased productivity and improved cost-effectiveness, whilst engaging in more sustainable ways of working. Their 2019 employee survey also highlights the motivation for remote workers in persisting with the practice, largely due to the greater flexibility and reduced commuting times it enables.
The Department’s ‘Remote Work Consultation Forum’ has also highlighted its capacity to facilitate the striking of a balance between work and family, especially for women returning to the workforce. Support for the practice is also evident from the aforementioned NUG/WDC survey. It found that an absence of traffic, reduced commuting costs and greater flexibility were hugely advantageous, whereas Amarach found that the practice’s capacity to reduce exposure to Covid-19 was the main attraction (81%), though improved work-life balance (70%), reduced commuting time (67%), increased work flexibility (55%) and improved productivity (50%) were also attractive attributes of the practice.
Disadvantages of Remote Working
Alongside the demise of ‘face-to-face’ supervision and coaching, other downsides associated with remote working span the impact of domestic disturbances on productivity to the lack of access to key information. On a broader scale, the NUG/WDC survey found that the main barriers to the practice were the types of jobs undertaken, poor broadband and a lack of trust from employers. The same source also found that for many homeworkers there are other practical problems, like difficulties with switching off from work, reduced contact with colleagues and inadequate work spaces.
Of course, it’s hard to be productive when you’re in a less-than-ideal living situation, with interfering domestic demands or disharmony or in a cramped flat with no space or home office facilities. Indeed, this may well explain the Amarach survey finding of ‘very strong views’ amongst those with ‘no interest at all’ in homeworking. This is attributed to ‘personal reasons’, that the respondents say shouldn’t have to be explained to anyone, though their stance may also be understood via the aforementioned European Foundation EU-wide survey that identified disrupted work-life balance and increased overtime workload effects. Specifically, the Foundation’s finding was that ‘work-life conflict was particularly evident for people with children under 17 who worked from home (and) was most notably the case for women’ who had difficulty concentrating on work due to family obligations, whilst 1 in 3 felt physically exhausted ‘always’ or ‘most of the time’ at the end of the working day.
Similarly, the DBEI acknowledges that remote work is associated with longer working hours, work intensification and an interference with personal life, leading to increased stress for workers linked to an inability to disconnect or difficulties in ‘switching off’, together with negative mental and physical health effects.
Many of the same concerns featured in Amarach’s research, with respondents focusing on negatives like disconnection from the workplace, work encroaching on home life, the costs and (in)appropriateness of homework space and health and safety issues. Another noteworthy downside to the practice (identified by the British Council of Office’s 2020 survey) is the impact on career development, with nearly three-quarters of those surveyed confirming the importance of the office to the development of networks and learning.
To maximise the benefits and minimise the drawbacks, it is clear that the effective management of remote working warrants an appropriate organisation policy – ideally derived from a business continuity plan - to include details on the ‘rules of engagement’, health and safety, IT security etc. Related thereto, the practice throws up legal issues in respect of working hours, ‘the right to disconnect’, data protection, health, safety and welfare, equality, bullying, remote surveillance and work-related stress. Amongst other sources, the Department of Business succinctly summarises an employer’s obligations on a range of such issues (see Guidance for Working Remotely during COVID-19).
However, given the prospective permanency and the potential of remote working, prescriptions for dealing with the main ‘people management’ challenges are not so widely available. For example, the Department’s 2019 report on remote working notes that while it is clear that employers are under increasing demand from their staff to offer such solutions, many are unclear as how to manage remote workers. According to the H.R. professionals’ body in America, almost three-quarters of employers are finding it difficult to adapt to remote (or teleworking) as a way of doing business. This is a serious concern, given that research on emotional intelligence tells us that employees look to their managers for cues about how to react to sudden changes or crisis situations. Where a manager communicates stress and helplessness, this has a damaging ‘trickle-down’ effect. Hence, to counter this, it is clear that an organisation’s remote working strategy requires careful consideration, to ensure that it aligns management’s leadership and focus (via clear policies/procedures), offers clear guidelines to employees and ultimately increases organisational resilience. Accordingly, to maximise the opportunities and to minimise the threats associated with the management of remote workers, the following recommendations will help:
1. The Right Tools and Policies/Processes
If remote employees have difficulty with the online platform or connection links, in downloading files, in hearing their colleagues and/or clients on a conference call or are being constantly summoned to meetings at times when they should be asleep or off work, the organisation has failed to address the basics. So, to remedy these drawbacks, it’s time to invest in reliable tools to make collaboration possible and then to develop clear policies/ processes for using them.
With regard to such policies/processes, Stratis Consulting make the valid point that remote working is role and organisation dependent, so it cannot always be available or may only be provided on a limited basis. They also advise that formal arrangements should address: (i) the frequency and duration of the remote work arrangement; (ii) any qualifications, e.g. the number of days for remote working; (iii) consent to enter the premises where the employee will be working remotely; (iv) communication and reporting issues; (v) absence and work time recording; (vi) health & safety obligations; (vii) performance management and (viii) insurance notifications.
2. Purpose and Plan
Simple though it may sound, it does help to remind team members that their role is central to the overall purpose of the organisation. Where employees feel down or disconnected, a review of short-term goals, whilst maintaining momentum via regular 1:1s, is essential. These link-ups should make space for the positive – that is, the ‘well done’ for what is working well. It may also prove mutually beneficial to extend this positive approach to the increasingly lauded ‘strengths-based approach’ to managing staff performance.
Having confirmed the purpose-employee’s role link and their performance cum potential, it is also helpful to agree the remote work arrangements, the mutual expectations and the processes for updating and keeping people ‘in the loop’. Whilst a concrete plan or policy is a must, it’s also important to adjust strategies when required. For example, it may be irrelevant whether employees put in the hours in the morning or evening, as long as high-quality work is done on schedule. The bottom line here is that just because employees aren’t at work in their cubicle, doesn't mean that the work isn't getting done. Related thereto, it may help to ask employees how they want to be managed while working remotely, thus enabling one to keep a pulse on what each employee needs to be productive.
All remote staff should be assigned a manager/team leader or local point of contact, where communication and connection are valued and utilised. Having communicated the organisation’s policy on remote working – incl. what hours employees should be accessible, the remote work tools to use, how to share files securely across home networks etc. - regular scheduled check-ins are an imperative. Remote work becomes more efficient and satisfying when managers confirm the ‘rules of engagement’, by setting expectations for the frequency, means and ideal timing of communication with their teams. This is enabled by the multitude of online platforms facilitating periodic team briefings via conference calls or video conferencing. Indeed, it is now common for remote managers to schedule a daily call with their staff, that entails a series of one-on-one calls with independent workers or team calls where the work is collaborative.
An important feature of this process is that the calls are regular and predictable and provide a forum in which employees know that they can consult with management and that their concerns and questions will be addressed. It will also help to agree as a team on acceptable behaviour for virtual collaboration (e.g. appropriate time intervals for responding to messages from colleagues/clients, no contact during specified hours to prevent ‘around the clock’ working).
Furthermore, in the absence of face to face connections, there is an onus on managers to listen actively to what is being said (e.g. anxieties, concerns) and how it’s being said and to tune in to what isn’t being said via appropriate questions that serve to clarify matters and allow one to offer encouragement and support. Related thereto, when getting feedback from employees, one should respond (whenever possible) in an appropriately proactive and positive manner. Keeping in regular contact with colleagues and clients also helps ensure that agreed timelines for projects and plans materialise, whilst keeping workers apprised of deadlines, available resources, work-related challenges and managers' expectations.
It is also pertinent that whilst Zoom-type video meetings are helpful, there are pitfalls in rushing from one overly long video call to the next. Hence, to boost communications and morale, instead of holding lengthy meetings many employers now prefer to schedule short ‘virtual huddles’ to boost teamwork and wellbeing.
4. Be S.M.A.R.T.
The better prepared employees are, the better they can deliver. So, having clarified the guidelines as to what is expected of staff when working from home (e.g. work hours, availability, communication methods, meetings, key projects and deadlines, responding to emails/calls), there is no better time to apply the SMART (Specific, Measured, Agreed, Realistic and Timebound) mnemonic to the goals that one wants employees and teams to achieve. SMART goals allow managers to judge productivity by results, not the hours put in. To prioritise productivity and avoid procrastination, it also helps for staff to work off a daily prioritised ‘to do’ list.
5. Trust, Training and Wellbeing
Once team members are clear regarding their role and goals/objectives, trust them to get on with it. Having agreed the SMART goals or objectives, avoid micro-managing, unless there is a very good reason for doing so. The bottom line here is to trust the people and the process until you have good reason not to. Training for remote managers of remote/distributed teams is also a major enabler in the successful interpretation of remote working policies. As Stratis Consulting point out, the dual challenge of managing remote working and maintaining employee motivation requires an upscaling of management training support.
Of course, during stressful times it helps to take time to talk. Asking team members how they are feeling and focusing on their wellbeing helps reduce the sense of isolation and increases the all-important support that employees want from management. Related thereto, some organisations are using technology to create dedicated spaces for celebrating success and special days (e.g. birthdays), company milestones (e.g., months or years of service) amongst other community recognition events. As the Gallup surveys have consistently shown, a key employee expectation is that their manager cares about them as individuals. In current circumstances, being trusted to get things done is a huge motivator for many, so long as the ‘virtual door’ is left open to enable necessary supports.
Annual Review of Employment Law 2020
A number of sessions at our Annual Review of Employment Law on the 24th and 25th November will focus on remote working, e.g.
- Regulating Home and Remote Working – Top Tips from a Leading Employment Lawyer (Speaker: Bláthnaid Evans, Partner, Leman Solicitors)
- Remote Workplace Investigations and Disciplinary Hearings: Getting it Right (Speaker: Caroline McEnery, MD, The HR Suite and WRC Adjudication Officer)
- Onboarding, Induction and Probation Assessment for New WFH Employees
eLearning Training Resource
Managing and Motivating Remote Workers in Ireland
The purpose of this course is to provide managers of remote workers with the tools to manage and motivate their team, optimise performance, and achieve organisational goals.
The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.