In recent years, businesses have inched toward allowing employees to work remotely. But with the outbreak of COVID-19, companies have leaped into the work-from-home world. Sixty-two percent of Americans in an April 3 Gallup poll have worked from home during the crisis — a figure that has doubled since mid-March.
The transplant of the U.S. workplace has caused serious upheaval. As freshly remote work environments create new sources of discrimination, harassment and other types of misconduct or the perception thereof, experts say HR departments will need to strategize to stop and correct misconduct.
In a March Gartner poll, 76% of HR leaders said their top employee complaint was managerial concern about productivity or engagement for remote teams. That's a typical employer worry, Dana Barbato, CEO at InvestiPro, told HR Dive in an interview. Employers may think: "Gee, I can see they were logged in, but what were they actually doing?" Barbato said.
But the issue of time theft isn't as big a problem as employers anticipate, she said. On the contrary, employees appreciate being able to work from home because of the added focus time and the chance to get back to the normalcy of the work they feel good about, she said. Numerous studies indicate that remote employees are more productive than those who work on site. Such research, of course, does not account for the current conditions, which may bring remote workers additional distractions in the form of partners, roommates and children.
But employers face a more pressing issue than productivity, Barbato said: communication. "Our biggest problem comes from the quiet," Barbato said. When employees work from home versus in the office, it can take longer to get questions answered about projects or procedures. That delay can make employees feel confused or worse —intentionally left out of the loop, Barbato said. "What we're hearing is that it creates a perception on the part of employees of discrimination or favoritism."
Within this new work environment, employees must adjust to newfound autonomy — a freedom that some leaders worry could lead to misconduct.
Remote misconduct can vary
The types of misconduct that can occur within a remote environment vary drastically depending on the type of employer, Shayna Balch, Fisher Phillips partner in Phoenix, told HR Dive via email. "Inappropriate behavior such as violation of anti-harassment policies or cyberbullying can certainly occur — especially with the current politically charged environment and exceedingly different views on COVID-19 [shelter-in-place] orders," she said.
The less formal nature of the work-from-home environment can make it easier for employees to slip into inappropriate behaviors, Nancy Castro, director of HR & business operations, JoTo PR Disruptors, told HR Dive in an email.
"The main challenge I face these days [is that] remote workers are having too much of a relaxed approach when attending meetings," she said. "Even though we are working from our homes, it does not mean we are all at a social gathering. There still must be a level of professionalism. Employees must still keep their comments, jokes and political opinions to themselves."
This informal environment also can contribute to unintentional misconduct, Barbato said. Sometimes, interactions can be perceived as cyberbullying. "With noises, spouses and kids, it can come off more harshly," she said. And misunderstandings become more frequent as workers' stress levels continue to rise.
Set the stage: Prevent misconduct
Employers should periodically remind employees of workplace expectations, Balch said. Also, update workplace policies and procedures if needed. "Try and keep messaging as positive as possible, and if any negative feedback or workplace counseling needs to be communicated, be as fair and transparent as possible," she added.
Castro, whose company has been 100% remote since 2015, keeps specific ethics policies in place with organizational guidelines that include an employee manual, documented processes for each position, quality control checklists and continuous spot-checking of work.
"We continuously train our teams so they have a clear understanding of what our policies are and how they should be following these policies," she said. "Staff are monitored by statistics — keeping 'personality' or arbitraries out of true production," she said.
For Barbato, prevention lies in communication. Find a means for open communication, she said, such as a chat room where employees can connect with managers at any time. "The more [employees] can talk with you, the less likely things will spin into an issue."
Show remote complaints the speed and gravity of in-office offenses
HR should take any complaints of remote misconduct just as seriously as if they originated at the office or worksite, Balch said. "With workforces that are working remotely, investigations can get a bit tricky. But the framework is still the same."
That framework, Balch said, includes:
- Promptly look into all allegations and, depending on the severity and the identity of the alleged offender, consider if an outside investigator should be hired.
- When conducting an internal, remote investigation, always start with a clear understanding of the alleged misconduct.
- If possible, obtain a signed and dated written complaint from the complaining party.
- Identify witnesses to interview and evidence to consider.
- Try to conduct witness interviews via video conferencing, as opposed to interviews via audio-only phone calls. One of the critical responsibilities of an investigator is to assess the veracity of employees involved, and body language can be telling.
- Once interviews are completed, document investigation findings and take any appropriate disciplinary action.
The shift to working from home is forcing people to take a look at their processes for addressing misconduct, Barbato said. HR leaders are navigating other ramifications of the pandemic, so to avoid delaying investigating claims, HR may ask departmental managers to perform interviews as part of a structured investigation process, she suggested.
"Don't let the situation fester," Barbato said. "It opens the door for liability."