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Dear ReWorker: What Rules for Remote Work Apply to This Unprecedented Situation?

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

Dear ReWorker,

Our CEO wants everyone to wash their hands and come into the office, but I'm trying to convince him the best thing is to let as many people as possible work from home. I've tried to tell him it will be fine, but he's old-school. If most of our employees do end up working from home, what company-wide rules can we reasonably enforce? Set hours? A background noise ban?


Ready to Be Remote


Dear Ready,

You can, within reason, make just about any rule you want. Setting strict work hours and banning background noise during official meetings or calls are both pretty standard. But, at this point in time, even those may be over-the-top requests for your staff.

They also might not be attainable for colleagues sharing spaces with children, video-conferencing partners or noise-making roommates. Here are a few more reasonable rules to live by these days:

1. Everyone does their best.

2. Everyone lets babies and pets participate in video conferences.

3. Obligatory snacking.

4. Unlimited screen time for children.

OK, back to being serious. I get where your CEO is coming from—this is the worst way to work remotely. You have a bunch of people without experience working from home, kids are out of school and daycare and everyone is stressing out about their livelihood—not to mention loved ones (and the world, in general). It’s understandable that your CEO expects people won’t be as productive (though, to be fair, several of those stressors would still reach employees at the office).

That said, he may not have a choice anyway. Multiple states have already made it all but impossible for non-essential workers to be in the office, and others will soon follow.

So, home it is, when at all possible. And since your CEO probably isn't going to be on board with the list I laid out above, here are some real rules to consider:

1. Non-exempt employees (paid hourly or otherwise eligible for overtime) need to track their time. Remember that all breaks less than 20 minutes have to be paid. So, if they step away to help a child with a video game (see rule 4 above), it's paid.

2. Try to minimize background noise. It's reasonable to ask people who may need to be on calls—video or audio—to keep the number of distractions down. That being said, certain distractions are unavoidable (turns out, young children didn’t get the memo about respecting boundaries). Luckily, there’s a mute button at your fingertips, which every employee should be using regularly during calls.

3. Be as flexible as possible. This one depends on the type of work you do. If you primarily work with external clients, you may need to keep and enforce strict schedules. If you're mainly writing code, it may not matter if you're working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. (at least, most of the time).

4. Focus on the end product. Don't waste management time auditing every keystroke to make sure people are sitting in front of their computers. Instead, look at what they produce. This should be the way we manage all of the time—not just when people are at home—but focus specifically on this right now. It will drive your old-school CEO crazy if he's measuring productivity by presence. I guarantee you'll be able to tell if people are slacking by looking at the outcome of their work versus the hours put into doing it.

5. Be understanding. This is a strange and unsettling time for everyone. Even with work at home provisions, people in your company may lose their jobs. Their family members may lose their jobs. People may get sick. The typical problems of life did not stop when COVID-19 burst onto the scene. Be compassionate and empathetic.

6. Have everyone check in, one way or another. This, again, depends a bit on your existing company culture. If your team regularly uses a chat platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams, a sense of departmental unity will probably transfer over to an out-of-office work set-up. If your communication was strictly face-to-face, getting people to collaborate and communicate via technology may be tricky. But keep a parallel conversation about life in general going with your employees. Ask them about their day and set time aside to talk if they’re interested. Give everyone the phone number for the Employee Assistance Program, if you have one, and encourage them to call if they feel too stressed or need help with a personal issue. Keep an open ear for signs of problems.

No one can predict when this will end, but hopefully, your CEO will learn that working from home is a feasible way to run his business with a remote workforce. He may even like the freedom that comes with not having to wear shoes. This brings us to Rule 7: Pants are required—no exceptions.

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