Q&A: HR’s responsibilities when the workforce is remote

Inside HR interviews Nathan Luker, the CEO & Co-Founder of Your Call. In this exclusive Q&A, Nathan speaks on what HR leaders need to consider when grappling with how to adapt existing policies and procedures to the new way of working.

  1. What are three key issues that need to be considered by HR managers when transitioning to working from home (WFH)? What are the short-term and long-term steps that organisations can take to overcome these key issues?

COVID-19 and the enforced move to working from home has put HR under the spotlight and for the most part, they’ve risen to the challenge. HR departments are generally well trained in their ability to plan for and respond to a crisis, but it’s another thing to sustain such plans for an extended period – and at this point in time, into perpetuity. Even so, there has never been a better time for HR to demonstrate their value to the organisation, especially at a time when non-revenue generating business functions are being scrutinised.

While there are many challenges HR managers have had to consider in transitioning their organisations to working from home, here are three of the most pressing ones to consider. Being a volatile and uncertain environment, the points are not mutually exclusive:

Communication platforms – stabilise the ship

Firstly, HR managers should be thinking about the organisation’s communication channels and platforms and how these can be leveraged to cultivate a sense of purpose for staff working remotely. While there’s no shortage of platforms to choose from, the challenge for HR managers is to use these channels to communicate the organisation’s values, culture, policies and procedures — things that tend to happen naturally when teams are in the same place. Most will have these platforms already in place; however, their true impact and value should be tested to ensure they resonate with employees.

HR managers have an important role to play in ensuring clear standards for engagement and communication, as well as the organisation’s vision and purpose, are communicated regularly and consistently through all channels and via leadership. Messages should be consistent from the top down and HR managers can prepare execs and other managers with briefing packs on how to manage people working from home, especially as they face challenges such as homeschooling, blurred boundaries between work and home, and the effects of social isolation. Providing consistency is crucial — working from home should be something employees can predict and plan for each day in order to create the least amount of stress for them at an otherwise very challenging time.

Consider the things that people enjoyed and appreciated in the office environment and emulate it for the digital setting if you can. It’s also wise to have as many data points as possible across the communication platforms that you’ve adopted to gather information and take pulse checks that can help inform decisions about ways of working and what may need to be tweaked.

Staff wellbeing – take care of your people first

The next but equally important issue to consider is staff wellbeing in the remote working environment. HR managers should be demonstrating certainty and stability to reassure employees and generate a sense of calm. Staff will be feeling uneasy about job changes, new expectations and potential or actual lay-offs and they’ll likely be feeling the effects of isolation from their colleagues.

HR departments should be creating feedback channels for staff to provide their say on how the working-from-home experience is tracking. Regular surveys are a helpful way to gather these insights so that HR can finesse the organisation’s working-from-home model and ongoing flexibility policy. If surveys are not appropriate or are generating low participation rates, consider researching new ways to check in with employees – there are a range of digital platforms in the market that allow organisations to receive feedback in a low friction way while also creating consistency (our team at Your Call use https://www.15five.com).

Adapting policies and procedures for the remote work setting – adjust to the new normal

HR is responsible for ensuring that all staff have access to and understand the organisation’s policies and procedures for a variety of operations and situations. It’s likely that these policies will need to be reviewed for the working from home context to ensure that they are still relevant and feasible and that they can be enforced in this setting.

  1. What security issues does WFH present to a company? How can companies deal with these security issues?

Having teams working remotely across many variable locations does present security risks for companies. These include things like insecure internet connections, other residents in the home who may be exposed to confidential conversations or documentation, and poor personal device security protocols to name a few. There is also increased risk of theft of an organisation’s property when it’s dispersed across so many locations. Organisations may also find that the pandemic prompts a fair bit of rationalisation for things like under-reporting and less stringent practices when sharing documents and accessing the cloud.

While the security profile and needs of different organisations varies widely, HR managers should be helping people to avoid silly mistakes that could result in privacy or security breaches. For example, not having a time out password, or leaving work computers set up where others may be able to access them. HR can help staff by providing clear guidelines for these scenarios and developing and communicating policies and procedures for passwords, accessing and protecting confidential documents, and even being aware of scams that may be circulating.

Companies should also consider supporting staff with access to a VPN and antivirus programs for their personal devices if they are using these for work purposes, along with digital safety education resources.

  1. Will there be a need for companies to introduce additional support services for staff that WFH? What support services would you advise for companies who will be affected long-term by an increase of remote employees?

There’s little doubt that companies will need to be looking at supporting staff to work from home in the longer term, whether it’s a hybrid model of working in the office and at home, or exclusively at home.

To support a future remote workforce, HR managers can start by assessing what supports are already in place for staff and what unique challenges people in different roles are facing in their work – then how each role can be better supported in the home setting. For example, a profile of frontline customer staff may show that they are on the phone to customers for the majority of each day and that they are having repeat interactions with people about COVID-19. What supports should be in place for these staff? It could be access to specialist counselling, a subscription to a mindfulness app, and training on how to manage difficult conversations or to be more resilient. Yes, it’s important to have company-wide support programs but specific job roles will require tailored support, more so now than ever.HR managers should also be thinking about expanding Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) to cover domestic violence, financial hardship, and relationship and parenting matters. They should also provide staff with tips on how to set up a healthy and safe workplace at home and encourage regular breaks from work and other activities that improve wellbeing at home. Human interaction and socialising are also vital, so implementing ways for this to easily and regularly occur for staff working from home is crucial.

  1. How will WFH affect the relationship an employee has with their team and their managers? What guidelines, policies, or initiatives can an organisation implement to manage these effects?

One of the positives we’ve seen from working from home during COVID-19 is that it has been an equaliser for a lot of people. The formality of board rooms and suits has been replaced with a view into people’s regular lives, with relaxed clothing, kids and pets included. This less formal arrangement serves to humanise staff more, from execs to frontline staff, as we’re all in the same boat juggling work and personal demands.

On the other hand, the ability to read body language when the workforce is remote is compromised, and this combined with some employees being less likely to speak up in a team can make it difficult for managers to identify potential issues affecting a staff member and to be proactive in responding.

The best thing that organisations and HR leaders can do is to identify and train leaders within smaller work groups who can be responsible for keeping teams motivated and on track, and to watch out for any fractures in working relationships or signs of poor mental health. Building a resilient and cohesive culture in the organisation doesn’t happen overnight, so hopefully there was a solid base to begin with that can be strengthened to support better team relationships in a remote work setting.

  1. What are some strategies that companies can take to avoid inappropriate behaviour, such as online bullying or harassment, while working from home?

HR managers should make it clear from the outset that the values and behaviours that were encouraged in the office environment apply equally at home. Likewise, they need to reinforce that behaviours that were inappropriate and unacceptable in the workplace won’t be tolerated in the remote setting. It’s also a good idea to consider ethics training for staff, especially when isolation and other stresses may contribute to people making uncharacteristic choices or actions.

  1. How does transitioning into a remote workforce affect a company’s whistleblowing policy? Will companies need to shift or reinforce their approach to whistleblowing within their organisation?

An interesting outcome of remote working is that reports of historical or systemic wrongdoing have been shown to increase as people feel safer to report from afar and when they don’t have to face a perpetrator at work.

However, people can also get confused about when to speak up and what warrants use of the organisation’s whistleblowing framework. In this case, HR managers should encourage a ‘when in doubt, speak up’ approach to potential wrongdoing and people who do speak up should be treated with respect and compassion, and thanked for their concern.

Hopefully, those HR managers, leaders and staff who haven’t given whistleblowing much consideration previously are realising it’s a powerful tool in the remote setting, where a lack of oversight and supervision of staff may be exploited.