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Does Your Work from Home Policy Respect Employee Nuances?

May 08,2020 Leadership
By Dom Nicastro

Companies have presumably already done the lion’s share of moving most employees to work from home settings. Slack estimates that 16 million U.S. knowledge workers started working remotely due to COVID-19 as of March 27, a few weeks after federal and state stay-at-home advisories and orders began. “Today we let our team know they have flexibility to work from home (or anywhere) through the end of 2020,” Zillow CEO Rich Barton tweeted April 24. “My personal opinions about Wi-Fi have been turned upside down over the past 2 months. I expect this will have a lasting influence on the future of work ... and home. Stay safe.” 

Allowing employees to work from home is a great first step in times like these, but that doesn’t mean every organization has the best, most up-to-date work-from-home policies. These policies need to account for the way in which employees want to work and how they work, according to Kristina Podnar, digital policy consultant. This isn't a work from home policy in 2017. This is a policy under a world health pandemic, and it's different. “One of the biggest mistakes organizations are making at this moment: Having outdated or no work from home policy,” Podnar said in a Linkedin post. “Working from home at a normal time is different for workers than working from home in a pandemic.”

Are You Considering the Little Things?

Most organizations presumably ensured their employees can do their work from home by now. They have company hardware. They have laptops. They have been using collaboration tools already, so that's likely not a major concern. They know how to use Zoom. We’re on month number 3 now of government shelter in place orders.

But what about the little things, Podnar told CMSWire. Does your work from home policy account for things like ensuring that those with introverted tendencies get enough non-meeting time? Are you allowing flexibility in the times when people are most productive? Just because the boss signs in at 8 a.m. doesn't mean that is possible for employees with four kids at home who need to get online for virtual classrooms.

These are the kinds of nuances organizations need to consider as the remote-work way of life continues for the foreseeable future with moves like Zillow’s taking center stage. Microsoft also announced this week most of their employees can work from home through October. “How do you make digital work for people in a way that makes sense?” Podnar said. “And that's the part I think that we're all missing. There are a lot of crazy little details that people aren't thinking about. They’re thinking about things like giving out laptops, and that's where the thinking stops. But that's actually the start of the conversation.”

Forget Rigid Policies, Expectations

This is not the time for creating rigid policies and expectations, according to Ben Whitter, founder and CEO of the World Employee Experience Institute (WEEI). "All leaders should be cutting their people some slack and driving human conversations rather than simply focusing on numbers and targets," Whitter said. "Real human conversations create real human relationships. This is vital to build trust, wellbeing and business outcomes."

Throw your rigid performance management to one side, Whitter added, and double down on human-centricity and lead with empathy. It's not just the right thing to do by people, but also for business. It will live long in the memory banks. "Whether businesses grow or fail, in many cases," Whitter sad, "will be entirely dependent on the answer to the following the question: As an employer, did you do as much as you possibly could to support your people through COVID-19? The businesses that did will be the ones that win in a big way on the other side of this crisis."

Related Article: Working and Managing Remote: What's Realistic to Expect?

The How and Why Behind Your Work From Home Policy

How and why employees work they way they do in a remote setting are crucial for digital workplace leaders to understand and reflect in the way they set expectations in policies and organizational expectations, according to Podnar. “What organizations really need to do is think about this from a very pragmatic perspective and think about it more like how are you going to communicate? How are you going to be productive? How are you going to get your work done?” Podnar said. “And then think through in terms of what does that look like? How do I train you or how do I think about the things that I want you to do or not do, the things that either create a risk or an opportunity for me. And then that becomes your policy. That is your policy.”

Do You Offer Meeting Opt-Outs?

According to Podnar, some questions to consider when looking at your work from home policy include:

  • Employee availability: When do you have to be available as an employee? Do you have to be presentable? What does that mean? What about your environment? Are kids allowed to be on call? Can your spouse run around in the background?
  • What does greatness look like?: What do we do for people who have different working styles? Can introverts be excused from tons of online meetings so that they don’t burn out? Can we work when we are most productive? How do you create space for greatness to happen and does that require eight hours a day? What if greatness happens in three hours a day? Is that OK? Or can people work 10 hours a day Wednesday through Sunday so that Monday and Tuesday they can tend to the family?
  • Remote and in-office expectations: If the office closes for those who still must come into the office and can’t do their job remotely, does that mean that those remote workers also get to take the day off with pay?

Related Article: Dealing With the 'Soft' Challenges of Remote Work

Respecting the Introverts and Extroverts in Us All

Organizations may want to consider avoiding blanket policies about face time, meeting check-ins and strict work hours during the day, Podnar said. Why? Because not all employees are alike, of course. “There has to be a respect for you being an introvert or an extrovert in terms of what ought to drive how much screen time you'll have, but it's also the preference of when are you most productive,” Podnar said. “I’m an introvert who's most productive in the morning. I actually prefer to have conference calls in the afternoon. I actually do better that way and I'm more productive that way, but that might not be your situation.”

The reality of the virtual workplace is that employees will have different preferences of times to get work done. Some may like 11 a.m. through 7 p.m., and others may prefer to fire things up at 5 a.m. “And so how can you and I collaborate and work together in environments where we only have three hours of overlapping time?” Podnar said, adding companies need to be mindful of this when reviewing their work from home policies.

The policy should specify what is needed from employees in regards to working hours, reaching the targets and contributing to the team's efforts, according to Jagoda Wieczorek, HR manager at ResumeLab. "Some flexibility in regards to work time distribution, though, should be considered for parent-households or employees that struggle to maintain a work-life balance when working from home," she said.

Setting Some Standards of Communication

Of course, no one is suggesting organizations set policies and expectations that say, "Do whatever the heck you want." Some standards of communication can be set, according to Wieczorek. "Flawless communication is key to maintaining productivity and also, fighting the feeling of isolation, especially for the team members that live alone," she added. "The policy should indicate the channels and frequency of communication as well as specify times for the employees to be available online. It should draw up a schedule of daily statuses, videoconference updates (i.e. through Zoom breakout rooms), 1:1 and team conversations, or using Slack channels." 

Related Article: Working Remotely: A Manager's Perspective

Are You Accounting for Emotional Stability?

Apart from an official work from home policy, when dealing with a health crisis and non-optional work conditions, make sure you support your employees in staying motivated, focused, healthy and emotionally balanced, Wieczorek said. "You can do so by maintaining constant communication, running online workshops that help them keep a work-life balance and supply support from mental health specialists," she said.

Keep the Employee Top of Mind

Bottom line? The biggest issue is that companies either don’t have a remote working policy or it doesn’t suit the employee and address actual needs, according to Podnar. They should stop focusing, she said, on only protecting the company’s interests, and legal stance, and create a policy by:

  • Defining a detailed plan for communication and work as it relates to remote workers.
  • Documenting the detailed plan ("that’s your policy," she said).
  • Clarifying who the remote work policy applies to. If everyone, thresholds, geographical areas. New Zealand is opening back up well ahead of Massachusetts.
  • Considering Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and inclusiveness. What do remote workers need if they have a disability and are they treated fairly like other employees.

"With the worldwide lockdown that happened pretty much overnight, a vast majority of businesses have been muscled into a transition to remote work with hardly any preparation or policies in place," Wieczorek said. "It is going to be a process: learning what works and what doesn't, but there are definitely things you can put in place to make telecommuting work."

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