A remote work policy, sometimes called a telecommuting policy, is a document that outlines the expectations that a business has for its remote workforce.
Many companies that have managed distributed teams with remote employees for years entered into this decade with solid remote work policies that provide clarity for their remote workforce. Similarly, many companies which began offering remote work temporarily out of necessity have decided to maintain at least some level of remote work. For those companies, building and rolling out policies for remote workers should be a priority.
Since “remote work” is basically any work that’s not performed in an office setting, including coworking spaces, home offices, in the field, or even airport lounges and RVs, remote workers will inevitably bring new questions and scenarios to your workplace that should be covered in your policy.
Avoiding “Back to Work” Backlash
It’s no surprise that many workers who transitioned to remote work during the pandemic have found it preferable to spending all their time in the office. Many workers have relished the additional time provided by not commuting, enjoy the increased flexibility of their workday, and appreciate being more autonomous. And some are not comfortable being in an office setting due to health concerns.
Businesses are finding that some employees are not interested in returning to an office setting at all, which has presented awkward situations.
In fact, there has been a backlash and some businesses who were going to eliminate remote work entirely are now considering maintaining a remote workforce, or at least offering a hybrid working situation.
Employees' distaste for a “return to normal” is so significant that some recruiters are taking note of companies sharing on social media channels that they’re going “back to the office” or “returning to work.” One recruiter reported searching for those phrases and providing employees with information about opportunities with the remote-friendly companies he represents. He’s been successful in recruiting people who don’t want to go back to an office environment to work for his clients who embrace remote work.
Remote Work Policies to the Rescue
When faced with a workforce that wants to keep working remotely – especially if faced with losing employees– a business may want to find ways to feel comfortable offering a remote, hybrid, or flexible working environment.
One way of doing this is to create a remote work policy. Employers can help employees to balance their working environment preferences with employer expectations by providing a remote work policy with clear language about off-site work requirements.
Most companies already have some kind of company policy that employees are asked to read. These often contain service level agreements and describe standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, expectations about work, communication, and other day-to-day information. There are some issues unique to remote work which need to be addressed separately and the remote work policy is the ideal place to address them.
So, the next step for businesses who’ll need to handle remote workforce management is to make existing policies remote work friendly and create a policy that applies to workers who work off-site.
This policy sets clear expectations for those who will interact with other members of the company differently than in person workers might. It helps to set expectations, and create appropriate boundaries. An employee who isn’t meeting expectations can’t be blamed if there is no documentation indicating what’s expected of them in the first place. A policy reduces frustration and reinforces the “dos and don’ts” and encourages accountability. If something goes sideways, having a policy to go by is very helpful.
Benefits of a Remote Work Policy
Both employers and employees benefit from having a remote work policy. The employer benefits because they can address working from home productivity or follow up with an employee who isn’t answering their emails in a timely manner, because they have shared, documented rules. The employer’s responsibilities to the employee are provided in plain language, and vice versa.
An employee benefits because they know what is expected of them, which helps improve productivity and reduce frustration. Most employees want to be productive and find satisfaction in the work they do. A good remote work policy helps to reassure employers that employees are working, which reduces stress for all involved.
Additionally, a guided tour of the policy is an excellent way to begin an employee onboarding, and helps new employees be ready to work more efficiently right from the start.
The Most Important Parts of a Remote Work Policy
As noted, a good policy provides clear outlines for what is, and is not expected of an employee and employer. The language in the policy ideally will prevent misunderstandings and misinterpretations, both of which cause issues that can be compounded over a distance.
The most important part of a remote work policy is establishing communication norms because bad communication causes so many cascading problems. Providing employees with guidance reduces frustration and mistrust. Some teams will maintain the same hours, no matter where they are, but other teams may conduct asynchronous work. This means that communication needs to be very clear and thought must be put into how and when team members will be able to reach each other. Internal service level agreements and standard operating procedures listed in the remote work policy prevent miscommunication and help teams work together smoothly.
How should employees use messaging platforms? If a coworker sends a chat to another, how long does the recipient have to respond? What’s the expectation for the maximum time between email replies? What’s considered urgent and what isn’t? What’s ok to have in view in a video call and, more importantly, what isn’t? Answering these and other questions will make remote teams more successful from the start.
Another thing that is really important for remote workers is setting working hours. This may be very specific for some roles: “work hours are nine to five, and we want you to take an hour lunch.” A policy may state how time will be tracked and reported, to ensure that employees are not working too many hours, for example.
For other roles it may be more fluid, but it’s still important to encourage a work life balance, and outline that in the policy somewhere, (even though technically you don't have to) to ensure your employees don’t suffer from burnout.
Legal and Compliance Issues
Some parts of a policy may be related to legal and compliance issues. While some remote jobs have lots of freedom, there are still restrictions. A policy can state that an employee will inform the employer of any changes, like a move, so that human resources can manage the changes properly. Even though an employee is working fully remote they can’t suddenly move to another state or country without potentially serious consequences related to tax and labor laws, insurance, and benefits, to name a few.
Additionally, a policy may cover safety and hazards, what is and isn’t covered by workers’ compensation or insurance, home-office equipment security, and other compliance-related issues.
Remote Work Eligibility
Your policy needs to include information on what positions are eligible for working remotely and in what manner. One role may be able to work remotely all the time, whereas another may be able to work remotely for several days, but must be in the office to complete some of their job. If a position is flexible, it will help to explain any related limitations or constraints. Of course, there are some positions where it's impossible to work remotely. Some jobs simply require a specific environment, and can’t be done elsewhere. It’s important to specify those jobs too.
A policy may have other eligibility requirements as well, like how long an employee has worked for the company or how well productivity is maintained. However, eligibility must be fair, compliant, and legal. It’s not ok for a business to say, “it’s okay for working mothers to work from home, but if you're single, you have to come into the office.”
Productivity is more than an accounting of hours worked. As such, guidelines surrounding productivity and how it’s measured are helpful to have in a policy as well. It’s beneficial for an employee to know what happens if they exceed expectations – or if they fail to meet them. Explaining the consequences helps keep communication open and encourages transparency.
Some policies include how formal feedback on productivity and job success will be provided, such as with quarterly performance reviews and meetings with remote team managers. It can be helpful to explain how managers and supervisors will work together to ensure that an employee is productive and the kind of management support that a remote employee can expect.
Assets and Equipment
As you create a policy, consider company resources and assets as a whole. For example, do existing policies cover cybersecurity on personal devices? Whose device does an employee use anyway? Does the company supply the device now that you're in Kansas and it’s based in Michigan? Does the company provide employees with some type of a stipend for them to get what they need? Who owns that equipment? Who is responsible for tech support? What internet connection is required to perform the job?
The Positive Effect of a Good Remote Work Policy
A remote work policy, like any others, is simply laying ground rules that will be consistently applied. It’s just like any other policy that is designed to ensure that all employees understand and are clear on what those rules cover.
Transparency and good communication are the best ways to start the process. Announce that a policy is being drafted, provide a timeline, and permit employees sufficient time to review it and ask questions. When it’s complete, have employees sign it as an indication that they have read and understood the policy.
A remote work policy lays the ground rules. It ensures that everybody knows what's expected of them when they are working remotely. It helps human resources stay compliant as changes in life and living situations occur. It optimizes communication and gets everyone on the same page.
If everybody lives by the rules in the policy, remote employees will be just as productive, engaged, and communicative as they would be in the office (or more!)