With the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus prompting the largest “work-from-home” experiment in history, many companies are now turning that forced experiment into a permanent reality.
German multinational Siemens AG announced plans in July to implement a new permanent mobile working scheme where its 140,000 employees can work two or three days away from the office. Others are allowing office staff to work from home for extended periods — with nearly 50,000 UK-based staff at Royal Bank of Scotland working from home until 2021, and transport company Uber extending its voluntary work from home policy for corporate employees until the end of June 2021.
But how are work policies keeping up?
“We encourage organisations to start to develop a remote-working policy if they don’t have one,” said Claire McCartney, resourcing and inclusion policy adviser at the UK-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).
“Many companies would have moved to working from home in a very quick, ad hoc way because they needed to — but given that our research is indicating that this will be a more permanent shift, organisations now have to think through and consider the best way to support their employees working from home and what kind of structures are required,” she added.
For companies considering a fully remote workforce or a hybrid model like Siemens, new and comprehensive remote-working policies will need to be developed in partnership with key internal stakeholders such as HR, finance, strategy, and IT.
These policies should not only set the tone and pace for both employees and managers (many of whom are still relatively new to telecommuting) but should also ensure the safety, health, and wellbeing of a company’s workforce. Finance teams will play a key role in giving advice in areas from cost impacts to increased cybersecurity risks.
Performance, timekeeping, and supervision
A company’s remote-working policy should address how employees will be supervised, how the organisation and line managers will communicate with them, and critically, how performance and output will be evaluated, McCartney noted.
“This is important to establish a common understanding between line managers and employees around working arrangements and expectations,” she explained. For example, will employees be expected to be available for work during strict office hours, or can they simply work a set number of hours per day?
“We also advise employees to establish when and how they will have contact with their manager, because reporting in at regular times can help to combat isolation and stress during the workday,” McCartney said.
With many employees also struggling to draw a line between work and home life, there is a risk of working for too many hours in a day (and not being compensated for those hours).
Ruth Zadikany, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Mayer Brown’s Litigation & Dispute Resolution practice, said that organisations developing remote-working policies should also consider guidelines around timekeeping and the mechanisms to do so.
“Policies should ensure that employees have a way to keep time accurately and know that they need to do it — irrespective of the fact that they’re not working in the office,” she explained. “When employees are working remotely, it’s very hard for employers to manage working hours and rest periods, but it’s still important to include that in the remote-working policy and make sure it’s very clear,” she added.
Reimbursement of work expenses
For many organisations, the issue of reimbursement of business expenses for remote workers can present an administrative burden rife with complexities.
According to Josh Henderson, an employment and labour partner at legal firm Norton Rose Fulbright in San Francisco, a remote-working policy can take several different approaches to expenses. For instance, an organisation can stipulate that any business expense needs to be preapproved, although this creates administrative work. Another approach is to provide employees with a list of preapproved options, with a commitment to reimburse employees if those options are selected.
“Companies that may be struggling financially would be best served by identifying a narrow list of preapproved, less expensive options for core work-from-home items,” he said. “More elaborate items — monitors and chairs, for example — can probably wait.”
Henderson also recommended that employers include a mechanism within the policy whereby employees can present additional information or evidence to support a greater reimbursement.
According to Miriam Bruce, partner in the London Employment Group at legal firm Mayer Brown, the most important thing is to provide clarity and keep the process open and transparent.
“New remote-working policies should provide clear guidelines around what the business will and won’t cover, keeping in mind that it is very important to ensure that employees are properly set up for working from home,” she added.
Health and safety
In most countries, employers have a duty to provide a safe and healthy working environment, and this extends to home or remote-working environments. This obligation can be approached in different ways. In the UK, for example, organisations are encouraged to include a mandatory electronic risk assessment in a remote-working policy — which should reveal any health risks or weaknesses in the home working setup.
For instance, laptop or computer screens should be positioned at the right height to avoid long-term physical strain and damage.
“If the risk assessment reveals any flaws in the home office arrangement, employers should work with staff members to address them,” McCartney said.
She added that aside from the physical workplace, employers need to place increasing emphasis on mental health and wellbeing. Remote working policies should very clearly point to any resources, such as employee assistance programmes, that are in place to support staff.
Computer, email, and internet usage
With many employees working from home on devices and systems provided by their employer, Zadikany noted that organisations should include clear rules around computer, email, and internet usage within their policies. These policies should be “strong and employer-friendly”, and this is something many organisations tend to overlook.
Zadikany urged organisations with existing usage policies to review and update them to ensure that they are robust and relevant in the new remote-working context.
“For instance, organisations should set rules around what employees can and cannot do on work devices, while also making sure that employees understand that their email and online activities can be monitored,” she explained. “At least in the US, employees should not have an expectation of privacy with respect to anything they do on a work device.”
Client confidentiality and data protection
Within client service industries in particular, the issue of client confidentiality is usually governed by the traditional contract of employment. Yet with the shift to remote working, Bruce recommended that employers use their remote-working policies to review and address how confidential information is handled.
“It’s a whole new ballgame now for organisations, so they will have to make sure that existing policies are fit for practice — or that new policies are created to ensure that sensitive client information and data is safely disposed of,” she said.
With regard to data protection, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) urged organisations to make sure data protection obligations are maintained and noted that employees using their own computer should still process information in compliance with data protection principles.
Flexibility and personalised solutions
With preliminary research indicating that female working professionals have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic — primarily because they are shouldering the bulk of childcare, eldercare, and housework responsibilities — experts are urging companies to use new remote-working policies to offer more flexible working arrangements.
“It is so important that remote-working schemes place emphasis on flexibility, and focus on outcomes [what the employee is expected to deliver] rather than the number of hours worked,” said Jenny Garrett, an executive coach and women’s empowerment speaker based in the UK.
“If you look at Siemens’s New Normal Working Model, they are primarily offering flexibility and providing many more options to employees to get their work done in a way that suits their individual circumstances,” she added.
For example, the Siemens model allows employees to choose the work locations where they’re most productive and to work on a mobile basis for an average of two or three days a week.
At Silent Eight, a multinational technology company headquartered in Singapore, an outcomes-based approach centred on accountability has shaped the company’s remote-only working model since inception.
“We emphasise collaboration, not control,” explained Karolina Strzelczyk, chief human resources officer at Silent Eight. The company works with financial institutions to optimise compliance and customer due diligence processes using an artificial intelligence-based solution.
She added that its remote-only working model is based on trust and extreme ownership, which allows the company to move quickly to serve its clients.
“To maintain this culture of trust and transparency across the organisation, the hiring and onboarding processes are very important,” she said.
For instance, when interviewing potential new team members, there has to be a strong alignment of values and the willingness to embrace a remote-only organisational culture. This includes having awareness when working with teams across different time zones, and being willing to communicate regularly and openly around daily goals, Strzelczyk said.
Potential remote-working risks for finance teams
Although many finance leaders are supporting the move to permanent or hybrid remote-working models as a way to achieve significant cost savings, key risks should be carefully considered.
Alexander Bant, global head of CFO Advisory & Benchmarking at Gartner, said that a major area of concern for CFOs is the maintaining of company culture.
“While remote working may allow for finance professionals to be more productive in their day-to-day finance processes, any breakdown in culture could inhibit strategic initiatives and the ability to support the business,” Bant said.
Another emerging risk for CFOs is cybersecurity, and the protection of sensitive client and financial data.
“It is very clear that CFOs are spending more time with CIOs and IT security teams to understand the risks, as well as which applications they need to fund from a cybersecurity perspective,” Bant explained.
Finally, the CIPD’s McCartney highlighted the importance of providing line managers, supervisors, and employees with an opportunity to give input and feedback on remote-working policies.
Organisations should also provide guidance and training on how to bring remote-working policies to life, particularly for HR leaders and line managers.
“Employers should be looking to provide regular training for managers that highlights the importance of regular communication as well as guidance to identify any potential wellbeing or mental health challenges,” she added.
Whether moving to a fully or partially remote-working model, the key for organisations is to have policies that create sustainable and healthy ways of working.
— Jessica Hubbard is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com.