Working from home

Colorado Springs-based Insurance Technologies has about 180 employees in the United States and about 70 who are part of a wholly-owned subsidiary in Jaipur, India. Since March, all of them have been working remotely.

“Thankfully, being a technology company, that transition went quick,” said Tammy Shuminsky, chief operating officer of the company, which builds and implements proprietary products for the financial services industry. “The majority of our people … had what they needed at home.”

Although the switch from 15-20 percent of employees working remotely to 100 percent wasn’t too difficult, it did raise some issues.

Gone were the company lunches on the patio that overlooks Antlers Park and the mountains. So were the fitness events that the company sponsored as part of its wellness program, and the town hall meetings that helped bring people together.

The company hastened to provide webcams and wireless headsets to facilitate communication and maintain its unique culture. The webcams enabled more personal department and company meetings, and the headsets allowed people to sit outside on warm days when they were making calls.

“We put together employee handbooks on stress and anxiety,” Shuminsky said. “We put out a new remote working guide that addresses everything from your environment to culture, to health and wellness, and just trying to give them information on their benefits and [employee assistance] programs that are available so they didn’t have to go looking for it.”

Insurance Technologies’ employees reacted well to the company’s efforts. 

“Employees are appreciative, and we’ve seen, in some cases, people become more efficient, because they can make it work with the challenges that they’re facing at home,” Shuminsky said. “We’re trying to be very flexible to allow them to be able to do that and still hit our company goals.”

As El Paso County moves into a new wave of COVID-19 restrictions, employers like Insurance Technologies that have already worked out work-at-home issues are ahead of the game.

But other businesses are still facing multiple challenges, including managing employee performance, preventing burnout, keeping up company culture and balancing the needs of employees and the company for the long term.

PRODUCTIVITY AND BURNOUT

Performance management can be more difficult when everyone is working remotely, said George Russo, Colorado Springs regional director of human resources and employment law services organization Employers Council. The key is assessing outcomes and the quality of work, just as if employees were in the office.

“When you are in the office, you’re not sitting over someone watching them do their work,” Russo said. “If you are telling someone to do something and they’re not doing it, that would be a performance problem, regardless of whether they’re in the office or at home.”

Some employers are concerned about tracking attendance, especially for nonexempt or hourly employees.

“Again, set the expectation of how that is supposed to occur,” Russo suggested. 

Employers are investing in software programs that allow employees to clock in with their phones, such as ClockInEasy or Paylocity, instant messaging apps that allow employees to check in with their employers and vice versa, and shared calendar apps.

Russo urges caution, however, about tracking everything employees are doing.

“We have had questions from employers about tracking software that is kind of a step beyond, where it is tracking what the employee is doing all day,” Russo said. “I’m hesitant to necessarily recommend that, because there may be culture issues that could come up if your employer is tracking everything you’re doing. We have also seen some pushback in some states from an invasion of privacy standpoint, depending on how the software is used.”

Performance problems, turnover and not responding well to expectations set by the employer may be indicators of employee burnout.

To alleviate and prevent burnout, Russo recommends that employers have conversations about expectations surrounding workload and relaxation.

“The expectation when we’re in the office is not that we are 100 percent of the time working,” he said. “You are allowed to get up and walk around. You are allowed to take a break if necessary.” 

Because in many cases the transition to working from home happened so quickly, these expectations might not have been clearly communicated to employees.

“Another thing that we have seen employers do is talk about relaxation or mental health or wellness to make sure employees have tools at their disposal to care for themselves, if necessary,” Russo said. “Remind them of the [employee assistance programs], if you have them, that can help them get in touch with a professional if that’s necessary.”

In his own organization, Russo said, he’s talked with his team about work-life balance.

“Now that our living room is our office, it feels like you’re at the office all the time. So I’ve tried to relay to my team that I don’t expect them to be working all hours of the night,” he said. “We need to make sure that we are allowing employees to set those boundaries to say, ‘I’m going to have dinner with my family’ or ‘I’m going to take a break, so that I’m not thinking about work 24/7.’”

CULTURE AND SAFETY

Both employers and employees struggle with maintaining the company culture when part or all of the workforce is working remotely.

“It is difficult, but one thing that we have suggested is keeping up communication with workers,” Russo said. “We have recommended happy hours or virtual lunches. At the beginning, those were much more popular, and they might be becoming a little burdensome. But employers still should try those types of things to make sure that they are connecting with their team and that the team is connecting with one another.”

During these occasions, the employer can allow the conversation to drift away from work.

“It’s important to leave some room for those ‘watercooler conversations’ that indicate how employees are doing and how they’re feeling,” Russo said. It’s also wise to allow for some level of fun.

Employees who are required to come in to the business because of the nature of their jobs may feel resentment if they think they’re being treated differently. To avoid such problems, employers should make sure they are not holding employees to different standards.

So when employers are working from home and have been given a 5- or 10-minute grace period to clock in or log on, “you should have that same 5- to 10-minute grace period for the employees who are coming into the office,” Russo said.

It’s also essential to assure the safety of employees who come into the office, through temperature checks, social distancing and mask wearing as appropriate.

“Make sure you’re enforcing your safety protocols that you may have put in place in March or April and that you’re not getting relaxed in that,” Russo said.

Employers also should consider employees’ safety at home.

“Worker’s compensation has come up quite a bit with regard to home offices,” Russo said. “Employers need to make sure that employees know that they should maintain a safe working environment … such as not working in a cluttered space so that they don’t trip over things,” Russo said.

Employers can check with their worker’s comp carrier to see what they want employees to know and what expectations should be set.

SECURITY AND FLEXIBILITY

The technological aspects of remote work and cybersecurity and how to deal with employees who have additional responsibilities they must take care of at home are vexing problems for some employers.

“A lot of the folks that we’ve been working with are struggling with getting the right pieces of technology in place to ensure good communication flow-through, but in addition to that, providing secure methodologies to store and transmit information,” said human resources consultant Reanna Werner, owner of HR Branches.

Employees’ home networks may be vulnerable to cyber attacks, and Werner recommends implementing virtual private networks and other secure methods to communicate and transmit files.

It may be possible to set up a network used only for business operations, making sure that VPNs are in place, she said. In any case, employers should take extra steps and work with their providers to bolster cybersecurity.

Home-based employees may be juggling multiple responsibilities if they’re caring for a loved one who is ill or a child who is out of school.

Employers can grant their employees flexibility to work outside core business hours and stagger shift times to accommodate home schooling.

“But they also have to communicate with their employees and talk about projects, set deliverables, timelines and objectives,” Werner said. “Communication is truly the key.”

Werner recommends frequent communication about what employees are working on, their goals, when projects will be completed and what support they need.

Having a written remote work policy or employee agreement can circumvent many problems. The policy should address working requirements, productivity, employee accessibility, time and performance measurement, and communication with management, Werner said.

With more restrictions in effect, “we’re going to see a lot more of this,” she said. Hopefully, employers will be able to fine-tune practices they came up with the first time around.

“But business operations have changed,” Werner pointed out. “Employers have added or lost employees. The products or services that they offer have in many cases changed. Even the landscape of COVID has changed. It’s a whole different ball game today.”

Werner said she’s been advising employers to make plans based on the state’s COVID color dial.

“So for every color on that dial, including the new purple level, you have a plan in place, based on occupancy levels, based on service levels,” she said. “If purple were implemented two weeks from now, am I ready for it, and how does it impact my operations? 

“Really, I think employers should be looking at a worst-case scenario. Get as many employees out of the office and working remotely as possible right now. If they can go to 100 percent, I say they start making those moves today.”

Reporter

Jeanne Davant is a graduate of the University of North Carolina. She worked for daily newspapers in D.C., North Carolina and Colorado, and has taught journalism and creative writing. She joined the Business Journal in 2017.