The company hired the employee to work from home, and as part of the onboarding, gave money to buy a worktable. The employee used the money to buy boxes of beer and build a desk made out of beer cans. He shared the photo with his team.
Innovative thinking? Definitely, but is this what his employer wanted? How will this impact the way team members, and the manager, view this employee? And, does it matter?
These are some of the questions that cropped up when I heard this anecdote at a recent PwC webinar on remote working. The speaker, Deepak Selvaratnam, founder of RemotAbility, shared several cases highlighting why organisations need to take a data-driven, strategic view on managing staff in "the new normal of virtual and hybrid work."
In one organisation, for instance, Deepak says all employees were asked to buy a first aid kit when they started working from home during the first lockdown. This foresight came in handy when the child of an employee had an accident and could have lost a finger if not for the timely response of the work-from-home parent, using the first aid kit.
In a more extreme case, Deepak says an employee logged on to the office system at home, but has not responded to his manager for a day. The company tried to contact the next of kin, and failing that, got the department manager to break down the door of the employee’s house. They found the employee had passed away.
These cases show how over the past two years, the altered work environment meant new challenges for organisations where staff could be alternately working from home and the office; remotely full-time; and with a team whose members have never met face-to-face (made possible by technology).
As the Economist reported, "A hybrid system, in which employees are in the office for part of the week, is here to stay."
A short checklist for everyone
Deepak, who has been working for more than 10 years on managing distributed workforce needs, shares this checklist for organisations with remote staff:
First, give them money with specific guidelines on what to purchase and to provide evidence, such as photos; and directions to set up.
Second, train managers and co-workers to ask specific questions around health and safety, and wellbeing. “Inculcate this approach from the CEO downwards.”
Third, use data and evidence to foster a culture in both physical and digital environments; and make investment decisions based on this data.
He can not stress the third point enough: “If you are not using data, you are basically putting people at risk and wasting a lot of money.”
If not, they could end up like one company that spent millions of dollars in a wellness programme. The company sent a weekly email about the programme’s features, but only a handful of people opened the messages. The uniform emails did not consider the staff members’ individual health and work locales, says Deepak. “They've got all these communications coming out at them that are meaningless.”
Household arrangements can also impact an employee’s productivity, says Deepak. “You really need to understand the kind of dwelling of each employee, and their living conditions. Are they co-sharing, living alone? Are they working on a kitchen bench? What is the set up that they will need?”
Indeed, a home workspace survey by RemotAbility shows why having this information is important for organisations with remote teams. The survey, conducted among 43,000 users in November 2021, found that 8 to 12 percent of respondents are NOT able to work from home due to a range of reasons such as lack of space or threats of domestic violence. Around 40 percent of users said their workplaces are unsuitable due to lack of space or furniture, poor environmental conditions and location of the house; and 62 percent of respondents share the workspace with a partner, children or others.
On health and safety, the survey found 23 percent of appliances employees use are not connected to surge protectors, posing risks to life and corporate assets; 52 percent have first aid kits but these are not fully stocked to meet workspace accidents and emergencies; and 67 percent work with a glare on their screens, with some believing this issue is not top of mind.
“It is only when you have the data that you can fully begin to direct health and safety programmes,” says Deepak.
“The remote workforce needs to be targeted, just like how we target our customers and segment them. Each workspace is different, each person is different.”
He says organisations should continue to engage with employees as their circumstances can change. “It’s a new work world.”