It is no secret that remote work is on the rise. While there is no shortage of statistics to help confirm this trend, Forbes argues that the most telling indication is companies’ willingness to hire remote employees. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 12% of companies surveyed said they would be open to hiring a 100% remote workforce; since September 2020, that figure has tripled to 36% of companies willing to hire remotely. 

Although this shift creates many opportunities for companies, there is denying that it creates some seismic shifts for HR departments. The following breakdown looks at some challenges, advice, and best practices for HR departments trying to handle a distributed workforce. 

General Challenges of Handling a Distributed Workforce

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Human resources emerged in companies as early as the 1800’s as a means of keeping track of employee information, ensuring compliance with wage and labor laws, and administering payroll. However, as noted in a recent article on LinkedIn, the role of the HR department has evolved tremendously over the past 10 years, with the HR department tasked with a multitude of diverse responsibilities, such as gender equality, workplace harassment, and environmental compliance.

While the shift to remote work is set to add even more responsibilities and layers of complication to HR, the basic functions that HR departments were originally created to address remain as critical as ever in 2021. The following breakdown looks at the unique challenges HR faces in the areas of employee support, compliance, and onboarding/offboarding as the workplace becomes increasingly remote. 

Getting Support to Remote Employees

Providing general professional support to online workers is more complicated than for traditional in-office positions. After all, remote employees cannot simply knock on their supervisor’s door any time they have a question related to their role. Sure, there is no shortage of messaging platforms that theoretically allow for instant communication, but there is always the risk that a supervisor will not see a message or be available to take a call, leaving the remote professional sitting around all day waiting for the response to an issue that would normally take five seconds to resolve.

However, the more pressing concern for remote employees is in the realm of IT support. According to Jones IT, remote work creates a set of challenges that most IT departments are woefully ill-equipped to handle. 

When a business is operating under the single roof of a corporate office, all employees are using the same Internet connection, the same software programs, and there is likely very little variance in terms of the hardware issued by the company. In the remote work environment, the combination of network, software, and hardware combinations becomes exponentially more complex. Not only can it be difficult to find service professionals to assist remote employees in a timely fashion, but getting everyone within the organization operating on compatible systems can be a daunting undertaking. 

There is also the ever-present threat of cybercrimes. Remote professionals will undoubtedly have access to important company passwords, financial information, and trade secrets. All of this delicate company information is at increased risk when online workers are operating on dubious networks without the presence of a VPN. 

Finally, it should also be considered that house guests or curious children are more likely to have access to this important company information in a remote work space than they would in a traditional corporate office, creating the risk for cyber sabotage, intentional or otherwise.

To help support remote employees with these IT-related issues, companies should consider the following:

  • Have a nationwide network of Internet service providers to ensure that remote workers have the necessary bandwidth to match the company’s needs
  • Provide online employees with a computer and mobile device to be used specifically for company responsibilities
  • Have a 24/7 IT help hotline for employees to contact, as well as partnerships with regional IT service providers for issues that cannot be resolved remotely
  • Equip all company software with multi-factor authentication and aggressive inactivity logouts to ensure that only your remote employees have access to company information

Compliance

One of the major appeals of working remotely is the ability to do your job from anywhere. Statistics cited by Human Resource Executive state that some 15.9 million Americans moved during the pandemic. Furthermore, “two-thirds of home buyers and sellers would consider–or already have–moved to a different area given the ability to work remotely full-time.”

This culture of “wandering employees” has created a remote workforce that many human resource departments are unprepared to manage, as many remote employees move without ever notifying HR. This is problematic because wage and worker protection laws vary significantly between states and localities. This can put companies in violation of the law without ever knowing it, creating complex and expensive compliance issues that can be difficult to navigate through. 

Therefore, to stay on top of remote compliance, HR departments should consider the following best practices for online employees:

  • Make regular inquiries as to all remote employees’ current addresses and have them sign agreements verifying their location
  • Draft policies that require remote workers to notify HR prior to moving, with the threat of termination if permission is not obtained prior to a move
  • Set parameters and communicate to employees any areas that may be “off limits” for remote work

Onboarding and Separation Processes

A root function of any HR department is to handle the onboarding and separation of employees. A smooth onboarding process creates a strong first impression, helps establish company loyalty, and avoids extended productivity declines during the transition. Successful separation leaves both parties feeling better for their time spent together and increases the likelihood that the former employee will maintain a positive relationship with the company, either as a customer or as a point of reference. 

However, the remote work environment has made both of these processes exponentially more difficult for HR professionals. Both onboarding and separation are traditionally thought of as times when “handshakes abound.” Meaningful introductions are made through personal interactions at the time of onboarding, while lasting relationships are secured at separation as employees make their rounds and say their final goodbyes.

While the complexity of remote onboarding cannot be trivialized, CPA Practice Advisor provides some outstanding best practices for HR professionals looking to onboard remote CPAs, with some of the highlights including:

  • Get started immediately – a traditional onboard for a new hire would involve scheduling meetings with various HR personnel to come in and take care of all requisite forms and processes. There is no need to align schedules in the remote hiring environment. The minute a candidate accepts a position, he or she should receive a welcome video call from HR, followed immediately by an email with a list of documents for them to get started filling out HR paperwork while the excitement of the new career path is still fresh.
  • Give new hires the tools to hit the ground running – too many companies expect remote professionals to use their own technology and office equipment when working from home. However, few new hires actually come with all of the necessary tools of the trade, and it can take weeks for them to try and piece everything together. Companies should send remote workers any and all equipment they need and provide them with software and login information so that they can get started immediately.
  • Prioritize personal connection – one of the fundamental aspects of a traditional onboarding process is the social aspect of getting to know everyone in the office. Obviously, it is a bit difficult for the department to take the new hire out for lunch when he or she is 500 miles away, so the organization must find other creative ways to establish a connection and make new hires feel like part of the team. A couple of ideas include setting up online breakrooms where employees can engage in casual conversation and prioritizing virtual team-buildings to limit remote employees’ sense of isolation and establish trust with the organization.

Although remote onboarding may be a more pressing concern for HR departments–there is currently a greater influx than exodus of remote positions as companies continue to transition to a distributed workforce–correctly handling remote separation is by no means an afterthought. Online careers make it tempting for employees to simply “ghost” employers with whom they are unhappy, creating myriad complications for companies. Among the benefits of a smooth, above-board, and amicable offboarding include ongoing goodwill with past employees, lower cost of finding a replacement, and avoiding any litigation related to wrongful separation. The following are a few ideas to help successfully offboard remote employees:

  • Schedule an exit interview to obtain their honest feedback on what it was like working for the company and solicit their ideas for improvement
  • Request their recommendations for potential candidates they may know who could fill the role they are exiting
  • Leave the door open for a possible reunion should future opening arise within the company
  • Give them your recommendation and offer assistance in helping them secure the next step in their career

Maintaining Corporate Culture

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Culture, by definition, is the norms and accepted patterns of behavior that arise within groups and communities over time. In recent years, creating a positive corporate culture has been a hot-button topic in research and a priority initiative for HR departments. However, it can be a bit difficult to establish a positive sense of community when employees are scattered all over the globe.

As such, CNBC offers some advice for maintaining the social and interpersonal interactions that are important in solidifying company culture when dealing with a remote workforce:

  • Allow for individual tasks to be performed remotely, while holding meetings in-person for those located in proximity of the company office
  • Conduct a yearly summit in which everyone within the organization meets under one roof (COVID-19 protocols to be considered)
  • Train managers to take a worker-centric approach to handling extenuating circumstances
  • Be flexible in the rules, firm in the results, acknowledging that remote work allows for a multitude of ways to “get the job done”
  • Make company goals and mission statements employee driven

Establishing Productive Levels of Communication

It is intuitive to believe that working remotely gets employees out from under the boss’ microscope. However, Slate notes that supervisors are biased to believe that remote employees are not really working, smothering them with a flurry of daily communication to “check-in.” Such micromanaging can seriously cut into employee productivity, as workers are likely to spend excess time crafting a response to supervisor messages than they would in a face-to-face interaction. 

The root of the problem lies in HR departments not yet having a full understanding of how to effectively manage and communicate with remote employees. While you definitely do not want to forget about remote workers, understand that remote employees are autonomous professionals who are completely capable of doing their jobs with minimal oversight. Some ideas for establishing a healthy level of communication with a remote workforce include:

  • Placing a quota on the number of mandatory Zoom meetings or teleconferences that managers can require
  • Have a system for marking the importance level of supervisor emails and messages so the employees do not stress out about quickly responding
  • Ensure that a certain percentage of communication is employee initiated
  • Place restrictions on employers contacting personal cells phones, email, and social media accounts

Helping Remote Employees Experience a Sense of Fun and Camaraderie

Remote Workforce
Despite the many benefits of deploying a remote workforce, there is no denying that remote employees feel an increased sense of loneliness and isolation, as the out-of-sight, out-of-mind nature of remote work can make employers a bit negligent in finding ways to improve employee well being compared to workers that they see in-person every day. In fact, the hit to mental wellbeing can be so significant that organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth notes that remote employees are likely to experience a 67% increase in loneliness compared to traditional office workers. 

Therefore, it is critical that organizations take intentional actions to ensure that remote workers experience the same sense of fun and camaraderie that in-person employees typically enjoy when surrounded by their peers. Some creative ways to make employees feel valued when working remotely include:

  • Mandatory virtual team meetings for all employees, remote and otherwise
  • Assigning employees a “chat buddy” each month to interact with during virtual break time
  • Creating a company-based Instagram account where remote workers can tag themselves having fun in their unique setting
  • Sponsoring company getaways where employees who meet certain performance goals can enjoy a meet-and-greet vacation on the firm

Rewriting Ponderous Manuals to Reflect Changes for Remote Workers

Although there is no set law requiring companies to furnish employees with a company manual or handbook, all successful HR departments use them to provide a roadmap for consistency within the organization. However, it can be a bit difficult to ensure consistency when remote employees may be working under an entirely different set of conditions than in-office professionals.

As a result, Workest by Zenefits advises HR departments to include some of the following key features when drafting policy for a remote workforce:

  • Steps for accessing and using company software, as well as who to contact in the event of an IT emergency
  • Standards for tracking time for hourly employees
  • Compensation, benefits, and bonus information, as some of the problems with incentive programs for remote employees revolve around perks that are not applicable, such as employee-of-the-month plaques, relaxed dress code, or ability to choose flex work days
  • Scheduling and work hour requirements for salaried professionals
  • How to submit and verify work
  • Metrics for assessing productivity and performance
  • Guidelines for virtual meetings
  • Parameters for address changes

Staying Ahead of Ever-Evolving Federal and State Laws

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As the law firm Wright Lindsey Jennings notes, state and federal laws are rapidly changing as the remote work environment evolves. For most purposes, businesses cannot simply say that an employee is now a remote worker without checking off a number of legal boxes. To legally transition an employee to remote work in most jurisdictions, the company must prove that:

  • The shift is made to promote a tangible business interest
  • The shift must be made in the absence of bias in regard to age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
  • The shift is compliant with all relevant ADA laws
  • The organization is aware of and compliant with all federal, state, and local minimum wage and work hour legislation 
  • The shift is not made to expressly avoid any tax or legal ramifications

The Most Effective Advice for Handling a Remote Workforce

Despite the many advantages of remote work, it creates a bevy of challenges for human resources. By considering the advice and best practices for handling the aforementioned challenges, the shift to remote work can be most effectively managed by HR departments. 

Corban OneSource is a Mid-Market Human Resource Outsourcer or HRO for companies of 75 to 6,000 employees. Are you looking to outsource the core HR functions of Payroll, Benefits Administration and HR Support? Find out more here.