Working from Home: A Primer for Employers (and Employees!)

For many years, employees in search of work-life balance have asked that their employers be more supportive of flexible work schedules and of working from home. Employers are wary (for reasons discussed below), but the recent advent of COVID-19 has forced employers to choose between allowing employees to work from home, forcing employees to come in (even if potentially sick), or fully shutting down operations. Needless to say, employers who can are now expanding their work-from-home programs.

But for an employer or employee unaccustomed to this structure, continuing business operations in this fashion is daunting, especially when people are understandably focused on caring for their families and making arrangements to survive this epidemic. And that is where this post aims to help.

Tips for Employers

An employer who has chosen to continue business operations and continue with a now-remote workforce has a challenging task ahead, particularly if you are making this choice out of necessity because of the epidemic and not as a planned business decision. Either way, whether this choices was anticipated or not, below are some things to consider as you move in that direction.

  • Hire employees that you trust. If your first thought was that it is too late to do that because you are already “stuck with” the employees you have, then that should signal to you that you should be concerned about your hiring and workforce management practices even aside from the work-from-home policy. A great employer takes care to hire, train, compensate, manage, and [where necessary] discipline employees in a manner that ensures their productivity. If you only trust an employee that you have to micromanage, that is not an employee you should keep.
  • Hire supervisors that you trust. Well, supervisors are employees, too. But this point focuses on the individuals who are responsible for communicating the work of the company and ensuring that it is done. That requires the supervisor to establish the employee’s work goals, communicate the work goals clearly,  provide the employee with any training and other support needed to accomplish the goals, communicate quickly and clearly when goals are not met, and separate employees who are not not able to succeed when supported in that fashion.
  • Clearly communicate work expectations for all employees. This is a great time to touch base with each employee to ensure that they are clear on the work they should be doing while out of the office, particularly if they are not accustomed to working from home. This should include:
    • The anticipated duration of the work-from-home arrangement (if possible)
    • A description of tasks/projects, including the format in which the project should be submitted
    • A final deadline for completion (and any intermediate/touch-base deadlines in between)
    • The preferred method of communicating while out of the office
    • A request for the employee to identify any barriers to success (e.g., does the employee have a computer, internet connection, etc.)
  • Clearly communicate schedule expectations for non-exempt employees. On a normal day, you usually require non-exempt employees to clock in and clock out; but keep in mind, that is so that you do not underpay them. If you already use technology that allows employees to continue to clock in and out while working from home, of course, do continue that practice. In the alternative, if you wish to modify your tracking, you can ask employees to email their daily or weekly hours worked. If you do not continue tracking, you should clearly communicate to your non-exempt employees the following:
    • Tell the employee to only work during their scheduled work hours. For example, if Jane Doe is usually scheduled for 30 hours per week, pay her for 30 hours unless she works more than that. Of course, this means that if Jane worked 27 hours last week, you are making a business decision to pay her for 3 hours she did not work instead of asking her to track her hours each day.
    • Clearly communicate whether overtime is allowed and the process for working overtime. You can tell employees that no overtime is allowed and that they must stop working at a certain point. For example, if you want Jane to stop working at 30 hours and/or to ask permission before working the 31st hour, tell her that. Even so, if Jane tells you that she worked more than 30 hours, you still have to pay her for that time; however, you are in a position to coach/discipline Jane for sticking to her schedule.
    • Communicate consequences for working outside of the scheduled work hours or for failing to report additional time worked. And then follow through in enforcing those consequences in a consistent and non-discriminatory manner.
  • Plan to reconnect, in person, once the work-from-home situation has ended. This is a great practice, whether the work-from-home arrangement has arisen out of the COVID-19 situation or whether this will become a more regular practice for your workforce. The supervisor and employee should meet to discuss whether the work-from-home time was a success, from each person’s perspective, and if not, what can be done next time to improve the experience.

In sum, the success of a work-from-home program rests heavily on the employer. It is costly and risky to constantly discipline and terminate employees who are not successful at your company. Instead, employers should focus on creating a strong foundation by  creating an environment where employees want to succeed and are given the tools to do that. Employees who work for employers that value them are always positioned well to work from home.

Tips for Employees

As you read above, the employer must do the heavy lifting to ensure that a work-from-home program is successful. But there are some things that an employee can do to ensure that their time at home is a personal success:

  • Set aside a workspace. This does not have to be a private office! You might have a desk in your bedroom or you might clear off a corner of your dining room table kitchen counter. Any space that allows you to mentally separate working time from resting time is ideal; therefore, I highly recommend against working while sitting in bed.
  • Ensure that you understand your employer’s expectations. This is particularly important if you do not normally work from home. Are you supposed to touch base each day or each week? Do are there intermediate or final deadlines you need to meet? Ask your employer to be very clear about what you should be doing, particularly if your work at home differs from your normal work in the office.
  • Address and communicate obstacles to working. If you do not typically work from home and do not have a computer, let your employer know right away so they can resolve this hurdle. In addition, if you are a parent whose children attended a school that was recently closed in response to COVID-19. If your must be done within specific hours (e.g., if your employer is forwarding calls to you that must be answered during business hours), think about how/whether you can manage that work with your children home. If work can be moved to hours when your children are otherwise occupied, that is ideal. If not and if you have a concern about managing, discuss and reach an agreement with your employer about this in advance.
  • Communicate if something changes. Unless your employer tells you otherwise, follow your company’s normal procedures for requesting time off from work if you are sick or otherwise unable to perform your tasks on a particular day.
  • Plan to reconnect, in person, once the work-from-home situation has ended. This is a great practice, whether the work-from-home arrangement has arisen out of the COVID-19 situation or whether this will become a more regular practice for you. You and your supervisor should meet to discuss whether the work-from-home time was a success, from each person’s perspective, and if not, what can be done next time to improve the experience. If your supervisor does not initiate this conversation, you should! If anything, taking ownership of your work experience will make your employer trust you with this practice more often.

As you can tell, my recommendations for employers (supervisors) and employees are similar in one key respect–clear communication is key for both sides of this relationship. Do not assume that the other party knows what you expect, need, or lack. Be proactive in identifying obstacles and discussing possible solutions. This is an arrangement that can work!

Let me know how you’re doing with this and whether you need other tips for success.