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PHOTO: Bench Accounting on Unsplash.

Now in the eighth month since COVID-19 first emerged, it is clear the changes it precipitated in the workplace are here to stay. So much so that recent Gartner research shows that the pandemic's second wave is now the top concern for executives.

The other emerging risks are also related to COVID and the prolonged and dramatic impact it will have on how organizations meet future business goals. Those findings are the result of a survey of 119 senior executives across a number of industries and geographies. In sum, it shows the new work model and managing remote work are the biggest challenges facing organizations in the coming months, if not years.

New Policies Needed for New Work Models

Gartner’s data shows that nearly twice as many employees will work remotely permanently post-pandemic compared to pre-pandemic, with executives reporting that 19% of their workforce will be permanently remote now, compared to just 10% pre-pandemic. It also shows that HR leaders have drastically stepped up their programs for monitoring employee productivity, with 73% indicating they are partaking in some sort of monitoring, compared to less than half in April.

With so many people now working from home, organizations should develop new remote working models, said Jay Singh of San Francisco-based LambdaTest. That's complicated by the fact that there's more than one type of remote worker and organizations need to develop something that fits all three of the following scenarios:

  1. Occasional work from home: Employees with competing personal priorities, such as busy parents, who work from home occasionally but it's generally restricted to one day per week or three per month. Companies like Deloitte and Glassdoor have already incorporated this policy.
  2. Work from anywhere: Employees who have the freedom to work from anywhere, at the office, home, a cafe or any other place with a stable internet connection.
  3. Fully remote work: The most advanced remote work culture, where an employee can work from anywhere and in any time zone. This can make sense for companies in the early startup phase that don't want to invest in infrastructure. Buffer and Zapier are fully remote work companies.

Related Article: Is the Hybrid Workplace the Future of Work?

Three Keys to Remote Work: Clarity, Alignment and Trust

Remote work is not just something that is desirable for specific workers, it is key to keeping the organization functioning when many workers are working from home, said Nathan Christensen, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Mammoth and Pleasanton, Calif.-based ThinkHR, two merged HR tech companies that serve small- and medium-sized businesses. From a management standpoint, he said, the three ingredients to shifting to a remote working model are clarity, alignment and trust.

"Employees work at their best when their employers communicate clear guideposts and ground rules for working remotely," Christensen said. "Although some employers will be comfortable sending everyone home with their laptop and saying, go forth and be productive, we recommend employers be more specific. That is why employers should consider implementing a written 'work from home' policy."

He said a good policy communicates expectations around hours of work, reachability, and how and when employees should be in contact with managers or subordinates. For instance, a policy might require that employees be available by phone and messaging app during regular in-office hours and respond to messages within a certain time frame. It may also require that employees check in with their managers at the close of each workday to share results from the day.

Employers should also not overlook whether employees will incur reasonable and necessary expenses while working from home and what the reimbursement process should be, if any. Some states mandate reimbursement for these expenses but it is a good practice to cover such costs even if it is not required by law. Without guidance, some employees may overspend on setting up their home office only to find out that those expenses will not be covered. Clarity is important to set expectations and either limit set-up expenses to a certain dollar amount or require pre-approval for purchases that exceed a certain threshold.

The second ingredient is alignment. Managers should align expectations of what success looks like, how it will be measured and the values employees are expected to uphold, Christensen said. Alignment on these dimensions is always important, but particularly so in a remote working environment when a manager has less visibility into employee work. In a remote context, managers often need to shift from evaluating and coaching employees’ work based on activities to doing so based on outcomes.

“This is a healthy and empowering transition," he said. "It makes managing much easier and enables employees to exercise their own judgment on how to best use their time and tools to achieve the agreed-upon outcomes.”

When it comes to the third ingredient, trust, working remotely often requires a leap of faith on all sides. Managers do not have a direct line of sight into employees’ activities and therefore need to communicate a sense of trust and responsibility to them. This is especially true during the initial transition period. Working from home requires adjustment, and particularly in the middle of this crisis, a lot of people find themselves at home with kids, spouses, partners and roommates. In addition, many normal processes, comfort zones or outlets for stress have been changed or closed off entirely.

Look Beyond Productivity

Not everything in the remote work environment is about productivity. Enterprise leaders need to take the mental and emotional well-being of employees into account to keep the workplace functioning. There are a few things business leaders can do to ensure camaraderie and collaboration don't suffer, and none of these things involve productivity monitoring.

If you have to monitor employees' productivity, the issues you're facing are not related to remote work, said Pieter VanIperen of  New York City-based PWV Consultants. Rather, they are related to hiring practices, expectation setting and how employees are managed in the first place. But if you want to ensure camaraderie and collaboration:

  1. Use video conferencing for meetings. Putting a face with a name is important to human relationships. Have mandatory employee events like a company Christmas party or a once-a-month coffee and cocktail hour where remote employees join on-premise employees. If an employee does not live within commuting distance, offer to video them in or spring for a plane ticket to get them there.
  2. Use a collaboration platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams. This will allow teams to have a specific place to discuss different aspects of business. It also allows people to chat and get to know each other.
  3. Set up weekly or bi-weekly check-in times. A 15-30 minute block of time to touch base with remote employees ensures they have everything they need to do their jobs. Use this time to check on mental well-being and make sure they are eating, sleeping and taking breaks.

“The idea behind these tips is simple: Try not to treat your remote employees any differently than you treat your on-premise employees,” VanIperen said. “It takes your entire workforce to keep business afloat, so there’s no reason to distinguish between who works in the office and who does not.”

Related Article: 3 Tips to Create a More Resilient and Productive Workforce

Don't Overlook Security and Scheduling

For businesses that are not used to remote work, there are several factors that need to be put in place before developing a remote working plan. Ottomatias Peura, head of growth at Helsinki, Finland-based Speechly, outlines the main ones:

  1. Security: Because of remote work, some businesses have moved toward a model where employees use their own devices for work. Companies need to make sure the necessary security measures are in place to prevent the abuse and misuse of their data.
  2. Communication and task management: Companies need to think about what kind of communication and project management software they are going to use. When teams fail to communicate, it is easy for projects to fall apart. Luckily for companies, there are many solutions that exist for communication and project management so it is just a matter of picking the best solution and implementing it.
  3. Work schedules: In some cases, remote work can go beyond the typical 9-to-5 and give employees the freedom to determine what time and place they will work. For some employees, this is great because they can schedule work around other events going on in their lives. Others might have a hard time putting in their hours and fail to complete projects in a timely manner. Companies need to determine if they will mandate work during a certain time or make work less time-based and more project-based.