With COVID-19 still raging unabated throughout the country, many businesses have allowed (or been required to allow) their employees to telecommute. But the day will come when the threat from COVID-19 will decrease such that wide-scale telecommuting is no longer necessary from a public health perspective. With employees getting used to working in their pajamas, companies should promptly start mapping out what the return to “normal” will look like for their workforce. Given the relative success of widespread telecommuting during the pandemic, it seems unlikely that companies will completely return to their “pre-COVID-19” levels of telecommuting.
Begin Evaluating Your “New Normal” Now
Figuring out what the “new normal” will look like regarding telecommuting six months or year from now should begin today. Employees will want (and need) clear expectations about their ability to telecommute once we are beyond the pandemic. The first question every company must ask is “what should the company’s telecommuting practices look like after COVID-19?” Once this preliminary question is answered, then companies should create a plan of action and decide how and when to roll it out to employees. Nobody has a crystal ball as to when the pandemic will end, so a return to “normal” may still be many months away. However, these decisions should be made sooner rather than later so that there is adequate time to plan and communicate the information to employees. Plus, there may be additional policies that need to be written, technology platforms installed, or hardware purchased to implement whatever “new normal” the company envisions.
Telecommuting vs. Working from Home – Is there a Difference?
To begin developing your company’s “new normal”, draw a distinction between “working from home” and “telecommuting” – because there is a recognized difference. In January 2020, many large companies (those with $3 billion or more in annual revenue) did not have a corporate-wide telecommuting policy or even a recognized need for such an option. The key difference between telecommuting and working from home is frequency. Working from home is typically utilized occasionally with no set, permanent schedule. Working from home is generally used in emergency or unexpected situations, such as a blizzard, a power outage at the office, or an employee who needs to wait at home for an A/C repairman.
By contrast, telecommuting refers to employees who work from a remote location (often their home) on a full-time basis. Items such as payroll taxes and work locations for purposes of workers compensation reflect the employee’s home address. As an example, if the employee’s home is in Atlanta, the company needs to treat that as an Atlanta office and correctly report the employee as working in that location for purposes of withholding state taxes, workers’ compensation, health insurance, etc.
Telecommuting Before and After COVID-19
Pre-COVID, the typical large employer had approximately 3% to 9% of their full-time employees telecommuting. During COVID-19 however, that number has increased exponentially, with some companies reporting that 40% to 90% of their workforce is now telecommuting. While that number will likely decrease once COVID-19 subsides, most experts predict that the “new normal” level of telecommuting will remain much higher than it was before. And with that new reality, employees’ and job candidates’ expectations about their ability to telecommute will change exponentially – so much so that being able to work remotely (even part of the time) may become part of the standard benefits package that companies offer.
There are reasons that business leaders have resisted telecommuting efforts in the past. First there are the common misconceptions, such as: “our business can’t work that way” or “telecommuting employees are not as productive” or “working from home is just a ‘vacation day.’” While it seems intuitive to think that employees who do not work at an office everyday will be less productive, the statistics actually show the opposite – with employees (and the companies employing them) actually reporting an increased level of productivity among telecommuting employees.
Some companies site the problem of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ regarding remote workers. If employees are not in the office physically working with their managers, the employee may get overlooked for assignments or miss opportunities for professional growth or development, such as cross training or special projects. This could impede or delay the employee’s development and growth within the company. While this is a valid concern, companies with successful telecommuting programs take steps to ensure the development and engagement of those remote employees. Managers may be used to physically seeing their employees every day, but that requirement appears to be more of an historical custom and not necessarily a requirement for individual or company-wide success.
Another oft-cited discomfort with telecommuting is the difficulty of providing remote employees with the same technology and security standards that they would enjoy at the office. This was a bigger concern several years ago, but today most companies utilize laptops, tablets, and cell phones as their office, all of which are entirely portable and generally usable from any location. While protecting company devices and information from malware, viruses, and other electronic intrusions is a valid concern, today most of the security software, firewalls, and Virtual Provider Networks (VPN’s) are either cloud based or are already installed on the device and therefore protects the device whether it is at your workplace, your home, or on the road somewhere. The biggest variable these days away from the office is establishing a secure Wi-Fi connection. But with VPN’s allowing for secure access to a company’s network from virtually any wi-fi hotspot anywhere in the world, fewer concerns exist about remote workers ability to securely access and use company information and networks while away from the office.
A final consideration is the size of your existing office. When your company signed the lease for its current space, chances are it envisioned all its employees working there and only occasionally “working from home” — not permanently telecommuting. Companies could now face the real prospects of paying rent for extra, unused office space that formerly was occupied by workers who now telecommute. Some companies are already coming to grips with this scenario and are trying to mitigate their soon-to-be extra space problem by (1) re-negotiating their leases with landlords to reduce the size of their offices; (2) subdividing and subleasing part of their office to another company; or (3) eliminating some offices and cubicles and turning them into group meeting spaces or other uses. Some companies’ leases will expire in the next year or two, and they may have the luxury of waiting to see exactly what their space needs will look like at that point. But make no mistake, a broad swath of companies will likely decrease their office footprint in the coming years due to the permanent increase in telecommuting.
COVID-19 has taught us many things in the last six (6) months. From an employment perspective, we certainly now understand that our jobs and our economy are not immune to pressures brought on by a wide-spread public health crisis like a pandemic. But one positive takeaway has been our collective adaptability. Less than a year ago it would have been unthinkable that a large percentage of our country’s workforce would be performing their jobs remotely; yet, here we are. Whether wide-scale telecommuting is workable as a permanent staffing model is a decision unique to every business. But if you think telecommuting might be a permanent fixture at your company, be sure to first take the necessary steps to evaluate the effectiveness and feasibility of wide-scale telecommuting. And if your company decides to make it a permanent part of its culture, plan for it now so that you can implement it appropriately when the time comes.
C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.