remote workers in pandemic

How To Manage Staff Remotely During Lockdown

As at the date of this article, New Zealand is still in the COVID-19 Level Alert 4 phase. However, we now know that people who can work from home will need to keep working remotely when New Zealand moves to Alert Level 3.

This will be the first time that many employers have managed remote work on this scale. It now looks as though they will need to carry on with these arrangements for some time.

How do you remotely manage your staff for such a long period of time? What if the type or amount of available work changes? And how do you handle your employees if their behaviour or their performance isn’t up to scratch during this phase?

SET YOUR EXPECTATIONS

First things first. Your staff should know the work you expect them to do and what their hours of work will be during this period.

Not having clear guidelines is likely to lead to frustration on both fronts. Your staff won’t know what to do, and it will be difficult for you to address problems if you haven’t been clear about your expectations.

You need to be clear about:

  • When your staff need to be available. Can your staff work whenever they want? Do you need them to work their usual hours? Are there times when they have to be available? This is an important consideration given that many people will be working at home with their children present and who may need supervision from time to time.
  • How much you expect your staff to work. You might be happy for your salaried staff to work extra hours. But you might be landed with a hefty wage bill if your waged employee has some discretion about their hours and they work more than you intend. If you haven’t already got a roster or agreed hours of work, make sure to tell your staff up to how many hours they can work. (And remember to take steps if this would be different from their usual hours).
  • Keeping track of time. On that note, if you question whether your staff are working as much as they should be, or if you need to keep track of their hours for any other reason, ask them to keep timesheets. Ideally these would be tracked online, but photos of physical time sheets emailed through to you, or daily/weekly emails advising of the hours kept, could work just as well.
  • How much they can spend. Your staff might need some things for their home office. If they have an expense limit or you have agreed they will be reimbursed for reasonable expenses, you should point out how much your staff can spend and what they can spend it on.
  • How to keep information confidential. Your workplace is probably designed to protect your confidential information but someone who doesn’t usually work from home won’t have those protections in place. Can your staff send information to their personal emails so they can print it? What if someone overhears their conversations or sees what they’re working on? Have a think about the confidential information in your business and the way you need your staff to handle it while they work from home.

Setting clear guidelines helps prevent problems and puts you in a better position to raise concerns if they do come up.

ONGOING COMMUNICATION

This is a stressful time for everyone. You might be struggling to keep your business afloat. Or you could be inundated and trying to keep up with customer demand. In the meantime, your staff are also facing uncertainty and want to know where they stand.

By now you will have reached an agreement with your staff about their working arrangements. If the situation evolves, there are certain steps you need to take before you make any further changes. Those steps help to make sure you communicate appropriately with your staff throughout the process, and where necessary, get their agreement. In short, communication with staff is key.

KEEPING YOUR STAFF HEALTHY AND SAFE

We are keenly aware of threats to our health at this time. Even when your staff are working from home, you still have a duty to ensure they are working in a way that is healthy and safe.

Realistically, you have little control over what happens in their home. So how do you meet this obligation?

Truth be told, there is plenty that you can (and should) do to identify risks to staff safety and eliminate or minimise them. Together with your staff, work through the tasks they will be carrying out. Consider the risks related to those tasks and then work out if the risks can be minimised or eliminated altogether.

For example, you should check to see if your staff have the right equipment to safely do their work. For a desk worker this includes having right kind of chair or having monitors set up at the right level. If someone’s workstation isn’t ergonomic you should take steps to remedy the problem.

You can also introduce policies to remind staff about what they need to do to keep themselves health and safe when they’re at home. This could include the employee agreeing to make sure they maintain their workstation in a way that is safe and ergonomic, and communicating any risks or incidents to you as soon as possible.

For a helpful checklist of health and safety matters relating to staff working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and an example plan for addressing them, see this guide issued by the Government.

HOW TO DEAL WITH BAD BEHAVIOUR

The opportunities for your staff to behave badly may be curtailed, but not necessarily eliminated, when they work from home.

For example, your staff might not follow your instructions by not working when they are supposed to (which might include not attending video or telephone conference meetings).

Perhaps they aren’t communicative with you and the rest of the team or they don’t complete their work on time.

And even though the methods of social interaction within your team have changed, an employee can use the means available to them, whether over email, messaging services or phone calls, to bully and harass other staff or make inappropriate comments to suppliers or customers.

You will still need to follow a disciplinary process before you can issue a warning or dismiss an employee for behaving badly. Adjustments need to be made, however, to make sure your employee can properly respond to the allegations before you reach a decision. This includes giving them the opportunity to meet with you via telephone or video conference. You could also give them the option of providing their response in writing.

Your employee still needs the opportunity to seek advice as well. You should inform them that their representative or support person can also attend the meeting by those means and assist them with any written feedback they provide before you make a decision in the matter.

MY EMPLOYEE ISN’T PERFORMING WELL. WHAT DO I DO?

Similarly, you still need to meet all of your usual obligations, which includes applying a fair and reasonable process, when you manage a poorly-performing employee.

The comments above about modifying your approach, such as meeting by video or telephone conference, apply here too. If your employee is able to work remotely you are likely able to review their work remotely as well. Your obligations to work with them to help them to improve still exist during this period.

If you had already started a process before the lockdown, you should review your previous plan and make changes if necessary. For example, you might ask staff to email work to you by a certain time, or set up a time for video or telephone meetings in place of your usual catch ups.

WHY DO I STILL NEED TO FOLLOW A PROCESS?

It might be perfectly clear to you that your employee has behaved badly or performed poorly. So then why should you follow a process before you take action?

Your actions as an employer need to be backed up by fair reasons and a fair process. Even though you might think you have fair reasons, if you never put your concerns to your staff you won’t know if there was a misunderstanding or some other reason for their behaviour. That’s why you need the fair process – to get the employee’s feedback before you make a decision.

Not following a fair process even during a period where staff are working remotely can create risk for your business. For example, there have been instances where employers have been found to have unfairly dismissed a remote working employee over the telephone, or by forcing an employee to resign when disagreement arose about the arrangements for them to work from home.

Even though the employers in these cases might have had valid concerns, their failure to take the right steps in the context where those staff were working remotely meant the Authority found the dismissals to be unjustifiable and ordered considerable sums to be paid to the affected employees.

CONCLUSION

Managing staff who are working remotely has its challenges. However, the basic principles that underpin successful employment relationships remain the same. You need to be clear about what you expect from your employees. If they act outside those expectations you still have all the usual means available to address their behaviour, albeit that your methods of communicating and recording concerns or discussions may need to adapt.

You also need to remember your own obligations to be responsive to, and communicative with, your staff as well as bearing their health and safety in mind. Check in regularly, keep staff up to date and make sure to set up ways for you and your team to keep in touch.