Due to the coronavirus pandemic, managing remote employees became an essential and pressing issue for many businesses. Although some workplaces did allow employees to work remotely before 2020, the pandemic amplified that situation after the issuance of state and local stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19. Accordingly, these mandatory orders for non-essential workers forced most employees to work from home. Even though many businesses reopened and stay-at-home orders ceased nationwide, many workers continue to work from home. In fact, Upwork, the online work marketplace for independent contractors and agencies, estimates that 22% of the American workforce (36.2 million individuals) will work remotely by 2025.
The increase in employees working remotely can be a challenge for supervisors and managers who need to ensure their workers maintain an acceptable level of productivity and performance. If employee productivity drops, so can the quality of the business’s output, leading to a loss in profitability. Managing remote employees is now an essential skill that managers and supervisors must master in this age of the digital workforce. Presently, due to the increase of remote employees, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2020-7, clarifying how to comply with federal notice and posting requirements in a remote environment.
The Advantages and Potential Disadvantages of Remote Work
Before allowing and managing remote employees, employers should know the pros and cons of offering remote work. For instance, the good news is that telecommuting arrangements can increase job satisfaction and performance. However, telecommuting is not for everyone. Comparatively, recent statistics make clear the benefits and opportunities associated with having employees work from home, either occasionally or full-time:
- Among performance-based remote work statistics, the International Workplace Group reports that 85% of businesses confirm that productivity has increased in their company because of greater flexibility.
- Additionally, according to a Workplace Survey by Staples, 90% of employees say allowing for more flexible work arrangements and schedules would increase employee morale. In comparison, 77% say allowing employees to work remotely may lead to lower operating costs.
- Amerisleep’s study of 1,001 work-from-home employees found that 57% are more likely than the average American to be satisfied with their job. Plus, nearly 80% of respondents described their typical stress level during the workweek as either “not stressed” or only “moderately stressed.”
Possible Disadvantages of Remote Work
Conversely, telecommuting arrangements, whether permanent or temporary, can also lead to:
- declining employee performance,
- security vulnerabilities, and
- managerial frustration.
According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Telework.gov portal, the most successful companies managing remote employees focus on setting clear expectations and modifying their management strategies.
Basically, by focusing on managing productivity, maintaining employee engagement levels, addressing security concerns, and understanding potential legal issues, employers and managers can ensure that all work-from-home employees (both new and existing) achieve maximum success.
Tips for Managing Remote Employees
Generally, business owners and managers who have never managed telecommuters before may struggle with adapting to managing remote employees. Similarly, supervisors with prior experience managing smaller numbers of telecommuters may struggle with having to monitor a more significant number of them.
While numerous issues can arise during and after transitioning to telecommuting, managers must focus, chiefly, on maintaining productivity. Some employees will adapt well to a work-from-home environment, while others might show a decline in performance. Managers must objectively assess the quality and quantity of work when managing remote employees, much like any in-office workers. Given that, the following tips can help managers maintain productivity:
1. Whether the work is performed in the office or virtually, maintain the same goals.
Work-from-home employees should be as productive as they are in the office if done correctly. However, this is contingent on their new work locations, allowing them the same access to resources and technology.
2. Track and measure productivity and performance.
In short, many roles drive metrics that are easy to track, such as sales, orders, shipments, response rates, etc. Other roles, however, are project and task-based. Consider using collaboration tools to make employee productivity visible to their managers for those positions. For example, a shared accountability approach where groups of employees see how their productivity stacks up against their peers can also prove effective.
3. Focus on results and expectations, not work activity.
Managing remote employees can be frustrating and challenging since managers and supervisors cannot monitor them like in-house employees. For instance, some managers who are new to managing remote employees may often wonder what their employees are currently working on. Markedly, this can lead to distracting check-ins and accusatory questions. By focusing on the expected result instead of the activity that produces the result, managers can set clear expectations for workers and help boost their overall output.
4. Implement collaboration tools.
In a globalized, Internet-based work environment, employers have access to hundreds of
different online-based productivity and collaboration tools. Specifically, employers can use virtual meeting software, task management solutions, and project management applications when managing remote employees.
5. Watch for declines in performance.
Suppose you notice a decline in performance from an employee working from home. In that case, it’s crucial to hold them accountable while also asking how to help. For the most part, the employee will be able to articulate what’s going wrong. In other cases, however, the root causes may be unclear. Is the employee:
- struggling with distractions, like children, spouses, or pets?
- experiencing technology issues?
- feeling overwhelmed with instant messages and emails?
Indeed, asking the right questions when managing remote employees can uncover the root of the problem to make managing remote employees easier. After all, other workers may have similar issues.
6. Utilize performance improvement plans when needed.
Employers, however, should not be afraid to initiate performance improvement plans or disciplinary action if warranted. Sometimes it’s easy to make excuses for employees, particularly when they are still adjusting to a work-from-home environment. However, when managing remote employees, holding them accountable for performance issues will motivate them to work harder and smarter.
7. Reward employees for good productivity.
In any event, employees who increase their productivity in a work-from-home environment should be acknowledged and recognized. Additionally, use these employees as examples of successful telecommuters to others who may be struggling to adapt. However, be careful when managing remote workers not to recognize employees who are pulling “all-nighters” to get the job done. Such an action could motivate the wrong behavior in others.
8. Keep employees engaged and promote good mental health.
Above all, working from home can leave employees feeling isolated and disconnected. In fact, according to a recent survey by Buffer, 20% of remote workers say that the biggest struggle of working remotely is loneliness. Additionally, home workspaces may come with distractions that aren’t typically present in the workplace. Work-from-home employees may feel empowered to indulge in non-work-related tasks like housework or recreational activities. The following are ways to keep workers engaged while managing remote employees:
- Start and end each workday with a conference call or virtual huddle. Define everyone’s expectations and priorities for the day.
- Check in with each employee at a random time each day to see how they progress. A quick email or instant message can help employees stay engaged with their work.
- Share wins, success stories, and humorous or inspirational content.
- Encourage employees to maintain a proper work-life balance. When managing remote employees, it is vital to realize that workers now have easier access to their daily tasks. Explicitly, it takes a much shorter time to reach their desk at home than driving into the office. Some may take advantage of this and work more often rather than spending time with friends and family or doing things they enjoy. A proper work-life balance helps the worker avoid burnout and stay mentally and physically healthy.
9. Remember your company’s legal obligations.
Managing remote employees does not remove an employer’s responsibilities for day-to-day workplace operations. The following are some legal considerations to keep in mind:
- Keep remote employees safe. Under its General Duty Clause, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires that “…each employer furnish to each of its employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” OSHA has also stated that the General Duty Clause covers employees who do not work on-site.
Subsequently, to try and keep employees working from home safe, employers can:
- Create an at-home work policy and provide it to all affected employees.
- Require that the employee create a dedicated work area at home and provide evidence that the space corresponds to the employer’s specifications.
- Wage and hour issues. Employers need to be sure that they follow the rules for hours worked as set out by the DOL and the Fair Labor Standards Act (Act). Specifically, under the Act, employees must receive at least the minimum wage and may not be employed for more than 40 hours in a week without receiving at least one and one-half times their regular pay rates for any overtime hours.
- Posting requirements. Employees working remotely are oftentimes unable to view or receive mandatory posting requirements as dictated by law. It is imperative, however, that employers know that managing remote employees also includes keeping them aware of their workplace rights. In December 2020, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) released Field Assistance Bulletin 2020-7, which includes electronic posting guidance for certain labor law posting requirements.
- Privacy and data security. Managing remote employees also means managing the critical information that employees may save and access online. In general, businesses that collect and process personally identifiable information from customers must ensure that they have the proper methods to maintain appropriate cybersecurity levels. Any breach of customer information can lead to identity theft cases and result in large lawsuits.
10. Train employees on proper cybersecurity practices.
Finally, to protect company and consumer information, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends employers train workers on the following when managing remote employees:
- Cybersecurity basics. Employees need to add passwords to all devices and apps.
- Secure home networks. Telecommuting employees must examine their routers and turn on encryption (WPA2 or WPA3).
- Keep an eye on all devices. If employees use a laptop or a mobile device, they need to make sure it is password-protected, locked, and secure. Ultimately, it should never be left unattended.
- Securely store sensitive files. Physical confidential information must be under lock and key.
- Dispose of sensitive data securely. Employees should shred sensitive data, never simply throw it out.
- Follow the company’s security practices. Since their home is now an extension of their office, employees need to still follow all other data security protocols already in place.
Personnel Concepts’ Compliance Solutions
In conclusion, there are many things that employers need to keep in mind while managing remote employees. Indeed, aside from keeping the business operating, they also need to monitor and teach telecommuting employees how to maintain productivity, security, and engagement while also complying with applicable laws. To help valued customers, Personnel Concepts offers the following valuable resources:
- Mental Health in the Workplace eLearning Modules – This product contains two interactive training modules on mental health:
- guidance for employers to navigate critical legal issues; and
- training for employees to improve their mental health, productivity, and morale.
- Cybersecurity Awareness Training Program – An interactive training that helps employers take reasonable steps to identify cybersecurity threats in the workplace and perform the necessary steps to reduce the threats through proper employee training.
NOTE: The details in this blog are provided for informational purposes only. All answers are general in nature and do not constitute legal advice. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. The author specifically disclaims any and all liability arising directly or indirectly from the reliance on or use of this blog.