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Out of sight.. not out of mind

With the increasing adoption of remote working arrangements comes the challenge of monitoring and managing performance both of the remote worker and those that remain in the office environment. Rebecca Lake, Employment Lawyer at Davenport Lyons, explores.

There was a time when remote working was perceived as a one sided benefit, in favour of employees. Today employers increasingly appreciate the benefit of embracing and enabling remote working for a variety of reasons.

Remote working provides the opportunity to decrease their real estate footprint, to increase their workforce without increasing their real estate footprint, the opportunity to expand the geographic reach of their workforce without the need to increase infrastructure costs and the opportunity to attract a more diverse workforce. Many employers already operate some form of remote working arrangements. These can vary significant from the relaxed ad-hoc approach to employees working from home due to personal emergencies/appointments, convenience or because they want some ‘quiet’ time to complete specific projects, to employers who routinely grant flexible working requests to working parents or carers under the statutory regime.

Employers will often have a formal flexible working policy which tells employees when and how to apply for this flexibility but very rarely do they have a remote working policy or roll out training to actually help those employees, and their office based managers and colleagues, make those arrangements successful. Arrangements are in fact often made on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis because the arrangements are unofficial and implemented for specific individuals who are deemed responsible and deserving enough to benefit from this flexibility. This can create resentment amongst colleagues and means that these arrangements are often under the radar meaning that if problems arise they can be difficult to tackle. Pullquote: Managing remote workers clearly has its challenges, the biggest of which can be the perception and expectation of those who remain working from the office.

The first challenge for employers is to get ‘buy in’ for these arrangements, from both the remote worker and those that remain in the office. The challenge is to make sure that everyone is working towards a common set of goals and objectives, and that they have the tools to get there. The employer’s challenge is to make the remote and office based workers feel connected with each other and connected with, and for responsible for, the success of the business. Tried and tested methods for doing so include cash based incentives such as: Cash bonuses based on the financial performance of the business, the particular unit in which the employee works, or personal performance; Spot bonuses to reward work on particular projects or employee behaviour, these could be used to encourage and reward collaborative working with remote employees; and Long-term incentive plans where cash awards are paid in exchange for continued employment to encourage longer term and sustained good performance. Some employers adopt the John Lewis method making employees stakeholders in the business by offering shares or share option schemes to incentivise and reward performance and to increase staff retention.

The Government has recently created a new status of employee, the Employee Shareholder. An employer can offer this status to an employee in exchange for the waiver of certain statutory rights including unfair dismissal, statutory redundancy pay and (topically) the right to request flexible working under the statutory regime. In exchange the employee must receive at least £2,000 worth of shares in the Company, be informed of any rights/obligations attaching to them and have the opportunity to seek legal advice before committing. Non cash incentives can also be a very effective way of encouraging and rewarding good performance and employees are often more willing to discuss non cash rewards, which in turn can motivate team members. Non cash incentives can include: Time off in lieu or additional holiday; Retail, travel or other vouchers; Personalised gifts; Paying for employee ‘away’ days or social gatherings; and Good old fashioned praise and recognition. Successfully incorporating remote working means not only changing attitudes, but also ensuring that employees have the tools needed to effectively enable remote working. Essential tools are usually a laptop or home computer coupled with secure and reliable remote access to the Company’s network. Additional tools that are extremely useful are use of a mobile telephone/blackberry, access to instant messaging or other instant interface with office based colleagues or other remote workers, shared calendars to allow easy flow of work and access to availability updates and video conferencing facilities to allow face to face interaction.

The key to successful performance management is the old adage that prevention is better than cure. Employers need to be highlight to remote workers the challenges that it presents and how they can make themselves visible and integrate with the business whilst working remotely. In terms of performance management contracts should deal with all aspects affected by remote working including: Particular support provided for remote workers (e.g. IT); How often they are expected to access emails/voicemails, expectations for responding to communications; Hours – whether there is a need for core hours or complete flexibility. How the employee will record their hours/work; Reporting sickness absence and monitoring; Code of conduct e.g. expected behaviours of home workers and how they will interact with colleagues; and Communication, highlighting the importance of communicating with colleagues and making availability and access clear. A probationary period or trial period should be considered to enable the employer to assess whether remote working is compatible with the employee’s role and with the particular employee. Employers may also want to include a contractual clause that allows them at any time, on reasonable notice, to ask the employee to revert to office based working if the needs of the business require.

This often presents the most significant challenge in relation to remote working. Managers are often used to “management by observation”. Remote working requires “management by objective” so that success if measure on output against objectives. This requires some up front work from the manager identifying and setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time Bound) objectives so that they have outputs against which they can assess and measure performance. Managers need to be trained to coach and monitor performance remotely and encouraged to pick up the phone, arrange a coffee or use video conferencing to tackle any perceived drop in performance, rather than relying on email. Remote workers must be subject to the usual appraisal systems and part of that appraisal should include a review of the remote working arrangements and identifying any areas that could be improved, both by the remote worker and those in the office.

Employers will need to manage the expectations of the office-based workers and provide training on the challenges presented by remote working and how processes, procedures and expectations need to be adjusted to take account of this different way of working. Interaction between remote and office workers is key and virtual team building will be required to make this a success. Office workers should be encouraged to keep remote workers involved in round robin emails/messages and to encourage them to dial into or join by video conference any team meetings or briefings. Instant messaging can be useful to help build relationships and show accessibility and availability. Remote workers could be encouraged to ‘buddy up’, or more experienced remote workers could act as mentors to new recruits to help them integrate into the role. Trust is a key ingredient of any successful remote working relationship but if the employer has set the expectations clearly, and has objectives that can be measured effectively, then it should be able to trust the employee. Micro management should be avoided as it is unlikely to be successful and can seriously undermine the trust and damage motivation. A remote worker needs to be self motivated and developing a good working dynamic with the office and building an atmosphere of trust can fuel this motivation.

“Feedback is crucial to all employees but particularly remote workers and managers should be encouraged and required to keep consistent contact with remote workers and to provide immediate feedback on any issues that may arise to prevent them escalating”

Feedback is crucial to all employees but particularly remote workers and managers should be encouraged and required to keep consistent contact with remote workers and to provide immediate feedback on any issues that may arise to prevent them escalating. 360 degree feedback can be particularly informative in a remote working arrangement as it enables the Company to understand the dynamic from all perspectives and identify any areas for improvement. With modern IT there are many ways of physically monitoring remote workers including telephones/blackberries, subject to the employee being put on notice of potential monitoring. However, all of these methods presume that the worker’s output can be measured by time spent at their desk, an often misguided concept. Reliance on this type of monitoring suggests that the required trust level to enable successful remote working does not exist. Performance/conduct should be managed by reference to the set objectives and only in circumstances where these are not met should formal performance management, as opposed to coaching/feedback and encouragement, be considered.

If the processes and measures above do not achieve the required work/behavioural standards then the Company should implement its normal performance improvement plan. However, the implementation and monitoring or progress of this Plan needs to incorporate all of the techniques and arrangements outlined in this article regarding effective communication with remote workers. The outcomes and consequences of not achieving the required improvement could include consideration of whether remote working is appropriate for the role and/or employee in question. It is at this point that the issues circle back to the expectations that were set and communicated to the employee at the outset and the contractual terms that have been agreed. Managing remote workers clearly has its challenges, the biggest of which can be the perception and expectation of those who remain working from the office. However, with the increasingly digitised world in which we work successful remote working should be perfectly possible and can in fact increase corporate productivity, profit and give employers a competitive edge. However, this success depends to large extent on adapting and adjusting attitudes and management practices to overcome the distance and lack of visibility that a company’s remote working arrangements to ensure effective performance is delivered to the satisfaction of both the employer and the remote worker.

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