The dramatic rise of remote work in response to the coronavirus pandemic may have lasting effects on the number of employees who wish to work from home.
Even as offices reopen, organizations shouldn’t expect everything to return to normal. Although some employees may be eager to return to in-person collaboration with their colleagues, others may prefer to continue working from home.
“The barriers to remote work are going to be lower than they were,” said Jim Boomer, CPA/CITP, the CEO of Boomer Consulting Inc. in Overland Park, Kan. “People are going to be more comfortable out of necessity.”
That includes both employees who in recent months have learned new technologies that enable them to work remotely and supervisors who’ve adapted their management styles amid the pandemic. In fact, these days the ability to have work/life balance and opportunities to work from home are requested benefits, said Jessica Battaglia, a human resources consultant at Paychex in Rochester, N.Y.
There are many considerations when it comes to making remote work part of your firm’s long-term plan. That’s what Boomer and Battaglia will talk about to open their July 23 session on enabling remote workers at the AICPA ENGAGE 2020 conference. Here are some of their tips for transitioning to a long-term remote work strategy — many of which firms can start implementing now:
Get a clearer picture of which roles are better suited to remote work. An employee’s day-to-day work often goes beyond a standard job description. Battaglia recommends supervisors or HR staff put in the time to truly understand each person’s responsibilities before crafting job descriptions. This will help employers understand which jobs translate well to remote work and which ones don’t once remote work is no longer a necessity. It can also make remote supervisors more effective, since it’ll give them a better understanding of what their employees are working on, even if they can’t see them in person, she said.
Clarify expectations. At Boomer Consulting, which started going remote five years ago and has been fully digital for two, every employee signs a copy of a remote work policy, Boomer said. That way, it’s clear to them what the organization expects.
Each new employee goes through a day of onboarding led by their direct supervisor and someone from the HR team. It covers topics such as the remote work policy, technology, and workplace culture. New employees also schedule one-on-one Zoom meetings with each of their co-workers focused on getting to know each other.
The policy requires employees to have a dedicated and safe workspace. It also says employees should manage dependent care in a way that allows them to still complete their work responsibilities. Employees shouldn’t be providing child care during work hours, but they are able to adjust their hours to accommodate dependent care.
“If you want to be involved in your children's activities during normal working hours, you can easily shift your work to the early morning or the evening,” Boomer said.
Though these requirements may not be realistic during the coronavirus pandemic, supervisors might want to consider implementing similar policies when it comes to long-term remote work. The policies are intended to help employees do their jobs more effectively from home, Boomer said.
Recognize that everyone’s needs are different. As offices transitioned to remote work early in the pandemic, employees approached it in different ways. Some had done it before and knew what to expect, while others needed more coaching. Still, some employees haven’t become comfortable working from home. That could be especially true of employees who’ve spent their whole careers in offices, Battaglia said. While many of them are likely looking forward to resuming normal office operations, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of at least having the ability to work successfully from home.
Make an effort to meet employees on their terms rather than assuming they’re all starting at the same baseline, she suggested. Battaglia recommends supervisors schedule check-ins with their employees at least once a week to make sure their needs are addressed and they’re staying accountable.
Think beyond technology. When firms think of going remote, they often rush to consider the technology involved, Boomer said. Of course, technology plays a big role in enabling employees to work from home, but supervisors also need to look at the bigger picture.
In a remote environment, supervisors can’t simply stop by an employee’s desk to make sure they’re working.
“When you’re remote and you can’t see people, having goals and a structure of accountability and regular connections throughout a project are critical,” Boomer said.
Just as it’s important employees understand the expectations that come along with remote work, it’s important supervisors check in regularly and build a culture of accountability to make sure those expectations are being met.
Advocate for the use of video rather than phone calls. Video has many advantages over phone conversations, Battaglia said. It fosters connections, helps keep remote workers from feeling isolated, and reduces the temptation to multitask.
Give staff advice for successful remote work. Share best practices for working from home with employees. For instance, Boomer also recommends employees wear work-appropriate clothes even when working remotely. That is important if they will be videoconferencing with colleagues or clients, and it can also help get them in the right frame of mind for work.
Boomer also suggests that remote workers set a schedule and stick to it. Doing this can help employees be more productive, while also helping prevent burnout, he said.
“By having a schedule, you can create boundaries around your time just as if you got in your car and went home,” he said.
— Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.