4 Discoveries on Offering Flexible Work

We have spent the past four months learning the do’s and don’ts of working from home on the fly. Employees have developed new skills right along with their managers and we, as employers, have had to reevaluate our assumptions about the nature of work. If we simply return to work as normal, this will have been a costly disruption and nothing more. However, if we apply the lessons learned, we can gain a strategic advantage in our competition for customers and employees alike.

I would like to share some of my key discoveries on offering flexible work.

1. Employees are working from home for the first time and many of them like it. 

A recent Gartner survey reveals 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home due to Coronavirus. Gallup data from the end of April 2020 showed that 63% of U.S. employees said they had worked from home in the past seven days because of Coronavirus concerns, a number that had doubled from 31% three weeks before. At Palmer-Donavin, we had 90 employees working from home for the first time. According to a Gallup article published in early April, “three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their job from home would prefer to continue working remotely as much as possible”. 

2. We do not have to take a binary approach to work arrangements.

Our own internal survey of remote employees conducted in May showed a strong preference for a flexible combination of working from home and working in the office. Of the remote employees surveyed: 

  • 53% prefer a flexible arrangement 
  • 28% would prefer to work from home permanently 
  • 19% prefer to work exclusively from the office 

Offering flexible work arrangements may be the best return on investment of any employee benefit in terms of attracting and retaining top talent. According to Gallup: 

  • 53% of employees say greater work-life balance and personal wellbeing are “very important” to them when considering a new job 
  • 51% of U.S. workers say they would quit their job for one that allows flextime 

We are dealing with a structural imbalance in the labor force. Despite a national unemployment rate of 11.1% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employees are still very difficult to find. Flexible work arrangements may be the advantage we need in the continuing war for top talent. 

If you decide to offer flexible work arrangements, be systematic about what jobs are eligible, who is eligible, and under what circumstances they can work from home. A well-crafted remote work policy can address issues before they arise. Employer organizations like Employers Resource Association in Ohio can help craft a policy that works for you. 

3. Managing remote workers requires a new skill set.

Ultimate Software conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 employees, all of whom work for companies that have a mix of remote and in-office employees. The survey found that managers are most concerned about monitoring the productivity of remote employees, while interpersonal concerns were their top concerns with in-office employees.  

Top Manager Challenges

In-Office EmployeesRemote Employees
1.Resolving ConflictsMonitoring Employee Productivity
2.Establishing RapportEffectively Communicating 
3.Setting Clear GoalsGaining Their Respect 

In our own experience, we have found that managers had to change their focus from what their employees are doing to what their employees are producing. Metrics become critically important to effectively managing a remote team. This makes it more important than ever to train managers on how to lead people, manage processes, and quantify results.  

The first step in that process is defining expectations. According to Gallup, “about half of all U.S. employees – remote or not – don’t know what’s expected of them at work. That’s a bad beginning, and it’ll get worse for employees sent home without good guidance. So managers must make expectations crystal clear: X is the work you should do, Y is the quality standard, Z is the deadline.” 

For the last four years, we have been defining roles with Job Scorecards. For each job, we define lead measures which focus on measurable activities, in addition to lag measures which are quantifiable results. In short, do this to get that. In addition to results, the job scorecard defines the processes by which the employee will perform the activities. They are a tremendous amount of work to create but in the end, they are well worth the effort. Utilizing free resources like O*Net can provide a great start on robust job descriptions and job scorecards. 

Beyond the job scorecard, regularly scheduled one-on-one check-ins with your team are a great way to connect personally with each of your employees. A standing agenda will help both parties know what to expect. Once you have done them a few times, you can quickly get down to discussing expectations and reviewing results. I have learned to keep detailed notes to refer back to over time. In addition to helping your employees understand your expectations and their performance verses those expectations, these meetings make the performance review process much easier and more effective.  

4. Peter Drucker is proven right again. Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Throughout our experiment with remote work, executives at Palmer-Donavin have been concerned with how we preserve our culture. In their Ten Talk, “Culture and the Flexible Workplace”, leaders from Tenfold point out the cultural value of micro-interactions, which they define as unplanned, spontaneous meetings. These interactions can lead to coaching conversations, unofficial mentoring, training and development opportunities, and just general relationship building. It is easy to fail to realize these interactions are missing. The consequences will likely not be felt for a while, but they will be felt eventually. With a remote workforce, we have to find a way to replace the valuable aspects of these micro-interactions while limiting the disruptions in the workday. 

Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and other virtual meeting and chat tools can help restore those micro-interactions. In addition to virtual conference rooms, they can become the virtual water cooler. Statista reported 13 million daily Teams users in July of 2019. By the end of April, that number had increased to 75 million. Companies have quickly realized the value of the software not just in terms of productivity, but in terms of culture. The great news is, Microsoft offers Teams for free with limited features.  

In addition to utilizing Teams, my own team established a weekly hangout where we all gather on a virtual call and check in with each other. We generally do not discuss work and yet I believe these meetings help us operate more effectively as a cohesive team. One member on my team mentioned it has become her favorite part of the work week and I have to agree.

Learn more about the three digital tools we recommend in our recent blog.

Other considerations impacting payroll and labor laws.
Remote employees are subject to payroll withholding taxes where they are working from. In many cases, withholding local payroll taxes is not optional. If you have employees working remotely, you may need to establish withholding accounts in jurisdictions where they live. If they live in another state, this may also mean establishing workers compensation insurance and unemployment accounts in addition to your withholding account. Lastly, employers with remote employees in other states need to be aware of differences in employment law from state to state. 

A measured approach is warranted.
In the end, each company will need to determine whether and how to offer flexible work arrangements going forward. For those that figure it out, there is a significant upside. From what I have experienced, most employees can improve their engagement and their performance with a tailored flexible approach. However, despite the hype, it is not a panacea. Some employees require the structure of the office. Some jobs cannot be done effectively from home. Some managers cannot lead effectively outside of the workplace. It is however, worth spending the time to craft your individual strategy.