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Homeworking is the new normal – part 2: healthy employer & employee relationship

This is the second entry in our ‘homeworking’ blog post series. Read part 1: productivity.

Although working from home has been on the rise for years, the COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to provide their employees with the necessary tools for homeworking basically overnight. Often, the situation was unprecedented: many branches that previously only worked in the office space were teleworking. The people behind those jobs – employer and employee alike – had no clue what to expect from the other.

In this blog post, we will take a look at the employer employee relationship; both on formal issues (policies, rights, duties, etc.) and informal ones (managing expectations) when it comes to homeworking, not necessarily relating to the current pandemic.

Formal: homeworking policies

The legal status of homeworking varies from country to country. Especially now, we notice that governments are doing a good job in informing their citizens about the laws built around homeworking – if any. It is impossible to go over every country[1], but here are a few notable examples:

Examples of homeworking policies around the globe

Homeworking policy in Belgium

In Belgium, there’s a legal difference between occasional telework (for specific situations such as a sick child, doctor’s appointment, etc.) and structural telework (working outside of the office on a regular basis, unrelated to external factors). Occasional telework requires a general homeworking policy attached to the employee handbook, outlining what functions can telework, for which occasions, if refunds are possible, what equipment needs to be provided, etc. Structural teleworking, on the other hand, requires a teleworking-specific clause in the employee contract, outlining the rules for that specific employee.

Homeworking policy in UK

In contrast to many other countries, employees in the UK have their ‘place of work’ included in the employee contract. When homeworking is requested (possible as of the 26th week of employment) and allowed, the contract should be altered accordingly: the place of work becomes the home address, with the notion that the employee is at times expected to be in the office. If other changes are made (e.g. working hours, expenses, benefits), the employee should also be notified. Everything other than that comes down to the company-wide homeworking policy the employer sets up.

Homeworking policy in USA

In the USA, employers don’t need to formalize a policy in the employee handbook or contract, but still set up their rules nonetheless – be it as an official, company-wide announcement or as informal as an email from your direct superior. As The National Law Review puts it, “[the homeworking policy] can be a stand-alone document or even an e-mail addressed to those who will be offered the opportunity to work from home.”

As is apparent when researching the situation of other countries as well, the subtle legal differences all boil down to instating a homeworking policy (optionally in conversation with your employees) and communicating its contents clearly to the benefit the employer employee relationship. 

What should a homeworking policy contain?

That brings us to the question: what should such a homeworking policy contain? Of course, the structure of such a document is not set in stone. ACAS has set up a useful and relevant framework to get you started; in short, it comes down to this[2]:

Introducing homeworking

What does the employer define as homeworking, why does he allow it and how should an employee apply for homeworking hours?

Setting the business case

What jobs and situations are eligible for homeworking, and what are other constraints (e.g. if the employee does not have a stable internet connection at home, he/she cannot do homeworking).

Outlining the practicalities

This will be the largest (and most practical) part of your homeworking policy, as it contains all the necessary details concerning the actual work and the regulations surrounding it. How can managers support the employee? This can include, but should not be limited to:

  1. Health and safety risk assessments (e.g. what are the safety requirements?)

  2. What does the company provide, and who is responsible for their correct usage? (e.g. laptop, phone, etc.)

  3. Which resources does the company not provide, but should be present? (e.g. heating)

  4. Who will pay for the installation (and other costs) of making your home a teleworking-friendly environment?

  5. Can living costs (e.g. electricity, internet bill) be turned in as expenses?

  6. What implications does homeworking have on your taxation? (differs per country)

  7. Guidance in mortgage, lease, and insurance issues (e.g. if home rental contract specifically states that the planned work cannot be done at home)

  8. When and how the employer will need to access the employee’s home (e.g. for installations or safety assessments)

  9. What happens when the employee moves jobs?

Any changes to specific elements with individual employees need to be discussed with and agreed upon by both the employee and employer of the companies, and ratified according to the legal framework of the country you are operating in.

Informal: managing expectations and management style

Setting up the ‘rules’ is one thing but putting productive homeworking that satisfies both employer and employee into practice another. It is important that both parties know what the other expects from them. Those expectations can range from changes in working hours and measurable performance goals to flexibility and touchpoints. These can be included in part in the homeworking policy of the organization, but more often than not those are verbally agreed upon conditions, resulting from conversation between the employer and employee.

Homeworking, trust and productivity

Quintessential to managing expectations is trust. One of the primary reasons employers are reluctant to allow teleworking, is the idea of the person in pajamas that will check their email once in a while and do other things all day: if you can’t see your employee working, they must be doing something else. Hence the off-the-wall requirements such as leaving your webcam on all day long, or informing your boss when you go to the toilet (as reported by Slate).

However, as stated in our previous blog post, that is far from the case: if anything, homeworkers are more productive. But they should be more productive for the right reasons: a survey found that over 40% of homeworking employees work longer hours than they would in the office. Staggering results that exemplify a lack of trust both ways:

  • Employers fear that their employee is not working and will check in regularly – not to optimize the workflow, but to try and catch them red-handed

  • Employees fear that their boss may suspect they are not working, hence overperform in terms of time to make up for the (inexplicably) lost trust, which results in a lower well being

Work is no longer a place

Directly related to those trust issues in the working environment is the fact that we must accept that work evolvesand so should our mindset about it. Lose the old axioms, and embrace the twofold evolution of work for the better:

  • If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that work is location-independent. For example, technology such as unified workspaces can give secure remote access and allows desk workers to perform the lion’s share of their tasks at home or elsewhere. It’s important to keep security in mind and take the measurements to protect your remote workforce.

  • The focus should shift from time spent working to results. Rather than expecting your employee to sit at their computer from 9 to 5 o’ clock, agree upon deliverables.

Imagine this: if office workers chat for 15 minutes at the water cooler, no one would bat an eye. However, if the same employees do not reply to a Slack or Teams message for the same amount of time, unhealthy suspicion and feelings of guilt enter the workplace. What is the difference between the two? In the first, you are on the work floor in the office – hence, by some managers’ logic, working. But we all know that work is no longer a place.

Best practices to align between employee and employer

A good practice to start is by adapting an open and flexible way of communicating at the businesses. This way you can create a good working environment. I personally found the following practices to be especially helpful to align ‘employee, his colleagues and boss’ in a healthy way:

  • Use IM tools like the office corner: a gripe of the physical disconnect between colleagues is that you cannot ‘overhear’ conversations in the office. Using IM tools is a handy way of communicating, but if you only go for private messages there will be a lot of information scattered around between people. Instead, even if you want to only contact a single person, try to use a group chat – as if you are shouting your question to the other side of the office. Then, too, people will look up, see it is not for them, but memorize the information. This has benefits for everyone.

  • Set up a weekly ‘webcam’ touchpoint: in my case, weekly turned out to be the perfect timing to have a conversation with my managers to align with all ongoing projects. We have regular ‘subject-specific’ contact during the week, of course, but that one moment is ideal to go over everything. Make it clear what you expect of the call, so you can all come prepared and don’t waste hours.

  • Focus on results, not time spent at the desk: in my opinion this should not only apply to homeworking scenarios. If anything, counting the hours is counterproductive: set goals, not clocks. Homeworking allows for a lot more flexibility, and you should allow your staff the bend that to their and your benefit.

  • Do not try ‘make up’ for homeworking: do not consider homeworking a privilege, but a right. You are in the same role with the same responsibilities, and these don’t change because the location of working has shifted.

  • [1] Note: teleworkers in the EU need to adhere to a general framework set up by the European Commission. Many if not all teleworking laws of EU member states are a concretized implementation of that framework. 
  • [2] Check out their excellent Homeworking Guide to get an extensive overview and guidance into drafting a homeworking policy.
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