By Katie Hodson, head of employment and HR at law firm SAS Daniels LLP
The global pandemic has forced thousands of people to change their working patterns and, for many office-based staff, remote working has become the ‘new normal.’ With the New Year kicking off with a third lockdown, this change in working patterns looks set to stay for at least a few months. With the onset of the first lockdown, individuals and businesses had to adapt quickly, many employees set up makeshift workstations in any free space they could find, whether that be the kitchen table or the spare bedroom.
One thing is for sure – all businesses, regardless of size, location or sector, have had to adapt in some way; some will have been more prepared than others. Some will already have had remote workers, while for others the first lockdown may have been the first time anyone had experienced logging in to the office system from home. The pandemic continues to present everyone with a unique set of circumstances and challenges.
Whilst, initially, allowing employees to work from home was out of necessity, many employers are now considering the long-term benefits. It might mean saving money on office space and parking permits, while others have found that, contrary to what they expected, some of their workforce is actually more (or at least as) productive at home, whilst some would always rather be in the workplace. If there is to be a permanent change, this would mean a major shift in approach and several factors will need careful consideration. For many, it is about finding a middle ground – an approach that works for everyone.
Managing feelings of isolation
Whilst some have loved the opportunity to work from home, cutting out the daily commute and increasing the amount of time they get to spend with their families, for others it has led to feelings of isolation and loneliness which need to be acknowledged and managed effectively. Feeling isolated can quickly escalate into a mental health issue if not carefully monitored and managed. Employee wellbeing is also intrinsically linked to absenteeism and productivity, so regular check-ins with the team and providing support where necessary is vital.
Establish remote boundaries
If you have staff working from home for the longer term, it’s important to establish remote boundaries for the benefit of both parties. Many employees working from home feel the need to be online all the time and find it difficult to switch off. On the other hand, if an employee is contracted to work 9-5, they cannot simply decide to start late on a Monday without agreement. For some employees, it might be necessary to manage a shift in their understanding that working from home is a change in location but not necessarily a change in working hours and job role.
Remote working into 2021
When face to face interaction is not an option, employers must make sure they’re checking in regularly with their staff, and providing opportunities for social contact which aren’t just client calls on Teams or Zoom. Line managers should be given guidance to make sure they are checking in with colleagues at regular times to help combat feelings of stress and loneliness. Sharing regular company updates is also a good way to help the team feel more engaged and part of the wider team.
Whilst chats around the kettle in the office might seem trivial, they provided a vital purpose and light relief for many, especially during particularly challenging days. Whether it’s a ten-minute online brew every morning with the team or a virtual cocktail making session, make the effort with your remote workers.
Employment policies and contracts
If longer term remote working is going to be a permanent fixture, businesses will need to think about whether their HR policies and employment contracts need to be adapted to reflect the changes to working patterns. As a minimum, a homeworking policy should outline working hours and details of how the employee will be monitored and assessed.
Career development opportunities
Many employees may be concerned that remote working and the lack of face-to-face contact with their line manager will hinder their career progression and development. Keeping remote staff loyal could be a major challenge for businesses throughout 2021 – it’s really important to show your colleagues they’re valued and are being invested in regardless of where they are working.
Preparing for the year ahead
Although many people have been forced to work remotely, for some, it may become a lifestyle choice. If this becomes the case, the time may come where the employer needs to formalise arrangements. If remote working is only meant to be for the exceptional circumstances we’ve found ourselves in, and there are no plans to make it more permanent, it’s important to make this clear to employees so they know they’ll need to make formal flexible working requests if they want to work from home in the future.
Difficult decisions for businesses
The pandemic has already forced many businesses to make difficult decisions, perhaps furloughing staff or making redundancies; and most have looked at how they can adapt their business operations, whether by changing their opening hours, or offering new services. Remote working, flexibility and employee wellbeing are likely to be the key HR themes that businesses will need to navigate and manage in the year ahead.