Why HR needs a thoughtful remote work policy

If your company is like most, you have employees who work remotely, at least some of the time. According to a recent Upwork survey, nearly two-thirds of companies have employees who do so, and that trend is growing.

Since 2005, the U.S. has seen a 115% increase in the number of employees who work from home at least half the time. And yet, even as the remote working trend picks up steam, companies still approach the process on an ad hoc basis, with 57% of companies lacking a remote work policy.

Why the increase in remote workers?

Just a few years ago, when a company had a highly specialized position to fill, it would launch a national or even global candidate search. Once a candidate was found and hired, he or she was relocated to the company’s office. But in today’s market, three major shifts have changed the typical relocation dynamic.

Jobs are becoming more specialized, creating a smaller pool of candidates. “Finding talent is increasingly challenging,” said Zoe Harte, senior VP of HR and talent innovation at Upwork, noting that hiring managers from the survey said it was three times as difficult to find candidates in 2017 than before. When candidates are found, they may not want to relocate. Having in-demand skills, they are in a position to negotiate for a work arrangement that doesn’t require relocation.

Millennial employees, the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, often seek flexible work arrangements, including the ability to work remotely. And ever-evolving technology gives employees the tools to work from home. For many, a high speed Internet connection and a laptop are all the tools they need.

Remote work is not a one-size-fits-all solution

Many enjoy working remotely because it can afford improved work-life balance, and in a survey, employees reported that they’re 77% more productive when working away from the office.

Some jobs, of course, don’t lend themselves to remote work. But for those jobs where it’s an option, the need for a policy is essential.

Employers are not required by law to provide work from home options, according to David Moore, employment attorney at Laner Muchin in Chicago. And in creating a policy, it’s important to first know which jobs require on-site, regular and predictable attendance, he told HR Dive.

“If you put a policy out there that all employees or most employees are allowed to work from home a certain number of days or hours a week, you need to be thoughtful if that applies to the whole workforce,” Moore said. Consider the consequences on morale and culture if only part of your workforce is eligible, he said.

Trello’s move to a majority remote workforce

While a few companies are intentionally designed to be remote, for most, the shift happens organically. In 2011, Trello, which creates project management software, had a 20-person team, all based in the company’s New York office. But then, one of the senior developers wanted to move out of the city to be closer to family, Justin Gallagher, head of product, told HR Dive. The employee proposed one-year telework trial.

“It was way better to continue to work with him than to lose him,” Gallagher said. The arrangement was successful and Trello started considering other roles that could be eligible. From engineering and designers to product teams and executives, it turned out all could benefit from the flexibility, he said.

Trello now has about 100 employees, with two-thirds of them working remotely throughout the U.S. and internationally, Gallagher said. The remainder work in the New York or San Francisco offices.

It would be naïve to say that everyone should support remote workers because it requires you to change the way you do things. Not everyone wants to make the effort.

Justin Gallagher

Head of Product, Trello

For Trello, the biggest challenge was maintaining communication and culture, he said. In impromptu meetings, for example, when a few people would gather onsite in the conference room and call the remote worker on video, it unintentionally put the remote worker at a disadvantage.

“They can’t hear quite as well. They keep getting talked over. It’s a big barrier to remote people contributing,” he said. “You spend so much time trying to find and hire them so they can contribute.” Now in meetings that include remote workers, everyone, even those onsite, dial in from their individual offices so everyone is on video, providing equal footing.

“It would be naïve to say that everyone should support remote workers because it requires you to change the way you do things. Not everyone wants to make the effort,” Gallagher said.

But those who do will benefit from a policy that ensures fairness in the process.

What to consider in your remote worker policy

In drafting a remote work policy, there are numerous factors to consider, the experts said.

  • What positions are eligible, and who decides that? If one manager allows it but another doesn’t for employees for the same position, employees will not feel the process is fair or consistent, Harte says.
  • Be specific and transparent about the policy, Moore advises. It’s not enough to create the policy; it is important to make sure it’s clear. Perhaps not all positions will be eligible, or maybe performance will be a factor. Moore suggested that HR consult an attorney for help in defining the policy.
  • Decide on what tools a remote worker needs to be effective, Gallagher said. Remote employees at Trello must have a dedicated office with a door that closes and a fast enough Internet to support video calls.
  • Determine how to ensure time to interact with coworkers. Trello employees can have flexible hours; however, they must overlap their working hours with New York afternoons, when the bulk of onsite employees are also working, which also makes it easier to schedule group meetings, Gallagher said.
  • Keep your policy flexible. Just as Trello began with a pilot program, Harte suggests starting small and being willing to adjust the policy as needed. If you already have remote workers, ask them what they wish they had in a policy, or what has worked well and what hasn’t. “Start with a broad framework, test it out for one month, two months,” Harte said. This is where an agile HR department can help lead the charge in iterating improvements, she added.

Remote work is here to stay

While a few companies have recalled some of their remote workers, the groundswell of employees wanting flexibility may be unstoppable. “This is becoming the baseline for attracting top talent. Companies that aren’t willing to have a remote workforce are going to potentially miss out on having top talent,” Katie Evans, senior communications manager for Upwork, said.

Even companies that are hesitant to allow employees to work remotely may actually be operating in that type of environment already, Gallagher said.

“Lots of companies, especially big companies, have multiple offices. You end up collaborating and communicating across office boundaries — it’s not that different from working remotely,” he said. “If you want to hire the best people, opening yourself up to hiring remotely makes that possible. For people who want to put in the work and time, the results can be great.”

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