Setting up staff for remote work provided a lifeline for companies during first-wave COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Now, even as businesses reopen physical workspaces, many are keeping at least some staff at home. From uncertainty about future lockdowns and childcare crises to maximum occupancy limits and the needs of at-risk employees, remote work is an option that is likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.
If your company is among those with a newly remote workforce, now is the time to re-evaluate and shore up your long-term approach.
Take a long-term mindset
The initial rush to implement telework solutions likely included making sure remote workers had the hardware they needed: laptops, phones, headphones, printers and so on. But few companies had time to consider the bigger questions regarding their obligations to employee health and productivity:
- Who’s responsible for ensuring that employees have access to essential infrastructure, such as high-speed internet?
- Is your company responsible for ensuring that at-home work environments meet health and safety requirements?
- Do you have policies in place to help protect your company from cyber-attacks as staff work remotely?
- Have you implemented training and support procedures to help remote workers maintain their emotional health and productivity?
Check your supplies
It’s in your company’s best interest to ensure that all employees have high-quality, reliable hardware installed with the (approved) software and applications they need to work efficiently from home.
- Consider supplying office-quality monitors, printers and headphones. The latter is especially important for staff who participate in numerous meetings or client calls.
- Depending on staff’s location, connectivity issues can cause ongoing frustration and productivity lag. You might want to provide partial or full reimbursement for internet tier upgrades or high-quality routers.
- Most full-time employees in the US are unable to take tax deductions for home-office costs such as internet, electricity and heating. A reimbursement plan for a fair share of these expenses can improve morale.
If you scrambled for supplies at the start of the crisis, some workers might be using home equipment. Although necessary in the short term, this practice can cause issues with productivity, communication and security. Develop a corporate-wide approach and best practices now to head off such problems.
Beware at-home injuries
In an ideal world, all your employees would work from a well-equipped home office. In reality, many newly remote workers are hunched over kitchen tables — or worse. These practices can contribute to work-related injuries like carpal tunnel or back problems.
Although OSHA notes that employers are not liable for home-office inspections or safety, they are responsible for any hazards caused by “materials, equipment or work processes which the employer provides or requires to be used in an employee's home.” And companies that are required by OSHA to keep records of work-related injuries must include applicable incidents that occur in home offices in their records
To help staff — and your company — avoid painful and potentially expensive issues:
- Be sure you know your obligations for employee health and safety.
- Provide ergonomic advice to help staff design and configure their home work spaces to avoid repetitive strain and back injuries.
- If you can, provide ergonomically designed chairs, computer equipment, etc.
- Follow in the footsteps of some tech companies, which offer employees a stipend to purchase appropriate chairs, standing desks and other necessities.
Take the security challenge
Employees might learn to enjoy the flexibility to take calls on the terrace or tote their laptops to the garden. But working outside an on-premises location increases the risk that sensitive conversations can be overheard, or confidential information exposed.
Most companies already have policies in place to outline how employees should handle and access sensitive information while travelling or working out of the office. Communicate with employees to reinforce these best practices and consider online training to remind people of the steps they should take when looking at sensitive legal, financial or other records outside of a secure physical location.
Now is also the time to take a hard look at your cybersecurity practices:
- Do you have a VPN for remote workers to use when accessing internal resources?
- Do you use multifactor authentication or other enhanced security?
- Do you have strict policies in place to help prevent inappropriate access or “shadow IT” (i.e., unapproved apps and software)?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, consider a cybersecurity review and revamp.
Help employees deal with stress
COVID-19 fears, lack of social interaction and the challenges of working in close proximity to family members can pile additional pressures onto standard workday stress. Access to counselling services can provide employees essential help and support. Peer-support networks can also help employees share their experiences and tips to manage and reduce stress.
Although they’re working from home, few employees are obliged to be on call 24/7. It’s important to set firm guidelines and ensure over-zealous managers don’t pressure people to join Zoom meetings or answer emails outside of normal work hours.
Balance the benefits
Remote work offers a myriad of benefits and cost savings for both employees and companies, such as:
- You might be able to save on overhead costs by reducing office space.
- Studies show employees with more flexible working conditions are less likely to take sick days.
- Staff are more likely to stick with a company if home working is a long-term option, saving on rehiring and training costs.
- A remote structure enables you to hire from a far larger pool of potential employees than if you must choose from those within commuting distance. Recruiting from around the country, particularly from different time zones, also enables you to extend opening hours.
- Employees can save on commuting, dry cleaning and restaurant costs.
- Reduced commuting has benefits for the environment.
COVID-19 may have made home working a necessity, but the convenience and cost savings mean that for many, it’s here to stay. Making the effort to design the right approach now can enable your business to take maximum advantage of remote work as an option throughout future waves of the pandemic and beyond.