Drew was supposed to wake up at 8 a.m., grab a coffee, and make toast just in time to munch on during the morning sprint meeting. Unfortunately, that was not the case. He grumbled: if only he went offline immediately after the “core hours” and ignored his manager, who sent him four texts each ten minutes apart. No toast makes a grumpy Drew, so he shuts off his camera for the morning meeting and thinks about smearing jam over the toast he’s going to make later. Nothing from the meeting went into his head.
Drew’s situation isn’t unique (no, not the toast one). Had Drew ignored the messages, he would not be part of the 56% of executives that check work-related communications “almost constantly” outside of the office. In the past, this used to be after-hour Whatsapp messages or calls: a new paradigm shift came when Slack and Teams entered the market as a work communication tool.
These after-work messages are a pain, and soon, Drew will find his working hours extending unknowingly.
It’s not just after-work messages that are plaguing a company’s remote work policy. Companies have been lamenting how the productivity peak that they first experienced with remote work is now dropping off, only to be replaced with presenteeism and isolation. Prolonging meetings unnecessarily and adding zero value to participants, thus creating meeting fatigue (proven to be a real thing by Microsoft’s recent study).
With a somewhat 24-hour working schedule, remote workers are massively prone to burnout, and recent studies showed that many are experiencing it already. A 2018 study even found that when employees keep checking their inboxes outside work hours, they suffer from more anxiety.
There goes their mental health as well.
What can companies do to tap on the benefits of remote work? It’s simple: have a clear remote work policy and iterate as time goes by. By not setting the wrong precedent, companies can also solve the problem of building a culture in the team.
An excellent remote work policy is built around five general rules:
1 — Availability
“Core hours” are often debated on whether they are effective or not, but every company has their nuance that may require it. It’s ineffective mainly because it’s challenging to find a standard “core hour” when a team becomes diverse, with a plethora of workers spanning multiple timezones.
However, employees are expected to be available when they are working, so when are they supposed to be available? A few ways to go about this:
- A blanket core hour that states that employees should expect meetings to occur during this time bracket and that they should be available for these meetings unless there are other circumstances; or
- Fully asynchronous, but meetings that are scheduled at least a day in advance should be attended regardless of the timezone (with the meeting chair taking everyone’s timezones in mind); or
- Every employee is to share their calendar (or have a tool that can integrate everyone’s calendar) so that other team members can find mutually available times.
Most of the time, employees aren’t needed to be available after work — there simply isn’t a business necessity for that.
Availability must be stated explicitly in the remote work policy. Does the company expect employees to be available for a set number of hours? Does the company expect employees to also be on-standby after “stipulated” hours (and if so, is it essential for the employees to be that way)? Most of the time, employees aren’t needed to be available after work — there isn’t a business necessity for that.
2 — Communication
Let’s take Drew’s case to illustrate this. When a manager sends a message to Drew, is Drew expected to reply within minutes after reading it, or is he expected to acknowledge it and respond later when he is working?
Without explicitly stating the communication methods and policies, it can be difficult to curtail the expectations of managers or team members who are somewhat workaholics. Sometimes, it can merely be a mismatched timezone, where an individual working in the morning is messaging an individual who’s already off work at night.
- What does the company expect to be communicated over Slack, over email, or a direct message? It can be challenging to state things explicitly for these, but there should be a general guideline to ensure communication doesn’t get too intrusive.
- What sort of messages would warrant an employee to reply after working hours? There are non-ambiguous situations for this, such as when a site goes down or a major screwup with a customer. For cases with less clarity, what’s the urgency level that’s assigned?
- How long do meetings last? What are the rules behind setting up an appointment? What type of meetings are there?
3 — Support
Support goes a long way, especially when employees can’t just get up from their desks and talk to their managers about their problems.
Is there a dedicated “remote work” mentor that an employee gets? How much personal support does an employee get to help them navigate through the new working arrangement? Considering that retrenchment and layoff fears are at its highest today, what can companies do to alleviate their concerns?
Support doesn’t always have to be emotional too. Physical support, such as tech aids is helpful. Companies can state whether employees are getting such help and who they can approach so that they can have peace of mind. For instance, companies who shrunk their office spaces can use the excess sum to subsidise home office setups for their employees. Companies can also tap on government grants to finance technology expenses such as laptops as well.
Other technical support, such as having a knowledge hub, would also help asynchronous work more effective. Avoiding silos in remote work is one of the biggest challenges, and that can be solved by having a dedicated source of truth (usually achieved by a SaaS tool or Confluence).
4 — Productivity
One of the biggest hurdles to enabling remote work pre-coronavirus was that companies believed remote work wouldn’t be as productive (who knew). Despite so, there is still a need to measure productivity equitably.
Some companies do get a headstart on this. Companies that practise sprints or agile methodologies would be able to measure a team’s productivity by doing retrospectives. This isn’t the case for slower incumbents or companies who never had an exact way of measuring their work.
The best way to go about with this is to go by task and responsibility. Stating an exact number of hours worked or being online or Slack isn’t a great way to measure productivity. It is inaccurate and unfair for employees who are more responsible or diligent than their peers.
It may be challenging to be equitable, but team leaders ought to at least have some framework in mind to measure the overall team’s productivity. Without stating what framework is being used, remote workers can fear that their work isn’t being recognised, which leads to more anxiety and stress.
5 — Legalities
Never forget legalities, even if it seems obvious. For instance, do remote workers take medical certificates to prove that they are sick, or do they call in sick and work at their own pace for the day? A few things to consider for legalities include:
- How much are you compensating your employees? Is their package still the same, or will you adjust it? Facebook recently declared a policy to change their salary based on where you live (like a cost-of-living multiplier), is that the case for your company? Is there overtime pay?
- What is the leave policy? In the office, a person on leave is a person absent. Now that they probably have nowhere to go and they are still at home while on leave, how is the company treating the leave policy?
With these five general rules, it can form a good foundation for a company’s remote work policy, regardless of whether it is partial or not. Just like managing employees in the office, there are always challenges that a manager has to struggle with.
Managers may argue that the lack of physical connection can make it challenging to do a good job managing the team — are these managers using those physical connections effectively in the first place before the coronavirus hit?
Even if the remote work policy is outlined in a simple Google document, it’s better than having employees doing guesswork and wondering when their working hours end. As employees navigate their situations without much clarity of what’s going to come next, companies who do their best in ensuring that there’s always zero confusion with the company’s operations will eventually emerge as winners.
Rather than blaming remote work for being unsuitable, why not experiment with a proper remote working policy before throwing in the towel?