December 2020
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From a Distance
TD Magazine

From a Distance

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

A well-crafted remote work strategy informed by multiple stakeholders, including TD, ensures long-term sustainability.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work was on the rise. Now we're seeing an unprecedented number of people working remotely because doing so helps maintain business continuity while protecting the safety of employees who are able to work from home. Of course, maintaining business continuity is just one of the many benefits of virtual work—others include access to global talent, decreased overhead costs, and a reduced carbon footprint.

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After having positive experiences with sudden remote work en masse, some organizations—such as Quora and Slack—have announced plans to continue the majority of their operations remotely. However, other businesses want employees to report back to their offices as soon as safely or legally possible.

Whenever the next phase happens, the reality is that most companies will continue to fall somewhere in the middle of the remote work spectrum. According to the 2020 Workplaceless Remote Work Training Report, 59 percent of professionals said that their company's typical remote work setup was either hybrid remote or flexible remote.

Even one virtual employee necessitates a policy

Companies that don't have a fully virtual workforce often don't recognize the need for concrete remote work policies. However, having just one remote employee makes a team hybrid-remote. As soon as one individual is no longer able to rely on place-based communication and interaction with colleagues, that team needs to reassess and update its processes to prevent miscommunication and disruptions to productivity.

A remote work structure's manifestation can be vastly different from one organization to another—in one company, a whole department may be remote-enabled, while in another, only certain roles will have the flexibility to work remotely.

Hybrid-remote teams present more challenges than fully distributed or co-located teams. Communication, productivity, trust, and work-life balance are some of the biggest challenges that are exacerbated by having a structure in which there is more than one default environment and set of rituals.

The pillars of remote effectiveness

Wherever your organization falls on the remote spectrum, it's clear that with the growth of remote and flexible work options, talent development professionals need to be prepared to support the workforce's evolution. For work-from-home plans to be sustainable over the long term, employers must invest in developing the three pillars of remote effectiveness: mindset, capability, and infrastructure.

Mindset—the attitudes that employees, managers, executives, and stakeholders need to support effective remote work. Mindset continues to be a critical hurdle for organizations to adopt remote work in the long term, and it is especially daunting for large companies entrenched in traditional ways of doing business.

For your organization to have a remote mindset, managers must trust their employees even when they cannot see them, employees must feel that managers trust them, and executives and board members must believe that the business can be successful while operating remotely. The TD function can contribute to a remote-ready mindset by modeling trust within its own team and emphasizing trust-building within existing and new TD initiatives.

Capability—the skills and behaviors needed to drive successful outcomes in remote and hybrid teams. For individual contributors, the competencies include self-management, the ability to collaborate asynchronously, and the ability to participate in and coordinate effective virtual meetings. For managers, the competencies include managing synchronous and asynchronous communication and performance across distance.

Infrastructure—the equipment, tools, policies, and processes that enable collaboration across distance. A remote-ready infrastructure is one where all remote employees have access to a working computer, high-speed internet, and the software necessary to perform their jobs. Employers should clearly outline this access in documented processes and policies.

Primary approaches to creating a policy

The remote work policy's purpose is to establish and communicate clear expectations for virtual workers in an organization or department. It clarifies what virtual work means in the context of the company, explains who is eligible for it, and outlines the structure of
remote roles.

The policy should be the outcome of an intensive process that involves multiple stakeholders and steps. Companies must write it with input from the people it will affect—namely, the individuals who will be working remotely, the employees who will work with them, and the people who are supervising the virtual workers.

It's one of the many team agreements that are key to making remote work successful, because the policy documents expectations in a way that is transparent, accessible, and consistent. Employers can take one of three primary approaches to creating or updating a work-from-home policy.

Internal. In the do-it-yourself approach, an employer assembles a task force or change management team with representation from (at minimum) HR, TD, communications, operations, management, and individual contributors. The benefit of taking a completely internal approach is that everyone involved is already familiar with the organization's mission and values, as well as the institutional and historical knowledge that can expedite decisions.

The downside of an internal approach is that it usually takes the most time of the three options. Instead of spending time on usual responsibilities, task force members spend it researching and benchmarking what other companies have done, in effect re-creating the wheel. Additionally, the organization increases the risk of missing key elements of an appropriate policy, especially if there is no one on the task force with previous experience in developing remote work policies. An internal approach is often the best method for employers that have an existing policy that needs updating.

Outsourced. This approach involves a company hiring a consulting firm or individual consultant to write the policy with input from stakeholders. One benefit of working with external experts is being able to draw from their past experiences to quickly identify any potential issues.

On the flip side, it does take time—and additional costs—for external consultants to learn about a company's culture and operations. This approach can be effective if your company is starting from scratch or its current policy is resulting in tension or unproductive teams.

Blended. Using this method, a task force or department owns the policy-writing process and hires external experts to provide guidance, input, and feedback. The blended approach captures the benefits of both the internal and outsourced approaches. A drawback is that unless your company thoroughly and appropriately scopes the project, ownership of the final policy may be unclear. A blended approach can be extremely flexible to account for the range of experience your team has and the amount of work it must do.

The approach your organization uses will depend on the resources it has available and the amount of work necessary. However, whatever approach your employer chooses, it will need to designate internal policy owners—the individuals or the department that will be responsible for assessing the scope, determining the approach, engaging a task force, and evaluating and engaging outsourced support as needed.

By definition, adopting or expanding a work-from-home policy will change how employees accomplish their work and interact with their colleagues and the organization. For that reason, TD is one of the business functions that should be represented in the task force or committee that owns the policy. Due to the TD function's responsibility for enabling the workforce to achieve business outcomes, it's critical that it be included in conversations and decisions that affect how leadership expects the workforce to achieve those business objectives.

Key elements of an effective strategy

Your remote work policy should follow your organization's standard procedures and formats and include any necessary language and review from legal counsel. From a TD perspective, it can be helpful to think about the policy as a job aid that helps remote employees identify the processes, requirements, and resources available to them that will enable them to succeed in a remote environment.

It also will serve as an integral document for the TD team to determine the context in which employees will be expected to perform their functions. That context should inform the type, modality, and content for learning experiences.

At a minimum, your policy should include the following sections.

Vision. Why are you creating a policy? What are the short- and long-term visions for remote work in your organization? What does it hope to gain?

Why is that important? Remote work is bound to fail if there's no convincing reason to deploy it—change simply for the sake of change will ignite resistance. There needs to be a clear, compelling vision for the benefits it will bring to the organization, teams, and individuals.

TD's role: A compelling vision for remote work enables people teams like TD to provide context for remote-specific performance solutions.

Culture. How does working from home tie to the organization's mission and values? How will employees participate in the culture in a virtual environment? What steps will the company take to ensure that all employees, regardless of location, experience the culture in an equitable way?

Why is that important? Maintaining company culture when going remote is one of the most-cited challenges among leadership. Outlining how company culture will manifest in a remote setting provides guidance and peace of mind for employees who are concerned about missing out on the connections and sense of belonging they seek in the workplace.

TD's role: TD professionals can use this information to help guide the design of learning programs that are inclusive of all employees.

Eligibility. What roles may work remotely? Under what circumstances? What limitations exist?

Why is that important? For complex organizations, filtering roles and functions that are eligible for virtual work may be the most time- and labor-intensive step in the process of developing or updating the policy. It should include any geographic or legal limitations that would prohibit certain employees from working remotely, as well as salary or payroll implications.

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TD's role: TD professionals should use the role filters to determine who needs remote-specific training and other support.

Outcomes. What are the desired business outcomes? What are the desired performance outcomes for individuals? How are those measured?

Why are these important? Outcomes explain how stakeholders will know whether remote work is successful.

TD's role: Clearly articulated desired outcomes help TD teams focus their efforts.

Requirements. What will the company require for virtual workers and managers? How will those employees gain access to the requirements? Who is responsible for providing access?

Why are these important? Requirements include the organization's must-haves and must-dos for virtual workers regarding environment, equipment, internet access, security, and compliance. This section enables employees to get their job done in a way that meets or exceeds expectations. This section will also outline how employees gain access to the requirements.

TD's role: TD teams should use the requirements to inform the objectives and content of any internal compliance training.

Resources. What resources are available for virtual workers and managers?

Why are these important? All employees need to be able to understand what is expected of them as well as know where to access information that can help them solve problems and find support.

TD's role: All TD resources that relate to remote work should be included in this section, including remote work and leadership skills training, as well as remote-specific job aids, videos, and other resources.

Implementation. How will your company roll out the policy? What is the process for revising it?

Why is this important? Everyone wants to know when changes will occur. Outlining the implementation plan manages expectations for change and creates accountability for the change management team to enable and use
a system of cyclical, transparent feedback.

TD's role: The implementation plan informs the TD team's development and rollout timelines for any learning programs that will support the successful transition to remote work.

Leverage results and insights

Your company will need to continuously update its policy, especially during turbulent and uncertain times, to reflect any changes that affect the company and its workforce. As TD professionals continue to support the workforce's capabilities in an increasingly remote environment, use the results you gather from delivering learning solutions to inform the policy's future iterations. For example, the TD function will be responsible for developing solutions to problems that arise as a result of shifting to remote work, such as poor collaboration.

In conducting a needs assessment and designing, developing, delivering, and evaluating learning initiatives that build remote collaboration skills, the TD team will uncover insights into how to improve the clarity of work expectations outlined in the policy, such as required tools, availability requirements, and communication standards.

Employees' understanding of expectations when working remotely is critical to their success, which is why it's vitally important that the TD function actively participate in developing and maintaining those expectations.

About the Author

Tammy Bjelland is the founder and CEO of Workplaceless, a training company that teaches remote workers, leaders, and companies how to work, lead, grow, and thrive in distributed environments. With her background in higher education, publishing, edtech, e-learning, and corporate training, she is committed to driving and supporting the future of learning and the future of work. She holds a BA and MA from the University of Virginia and is a Certified Master Trainer by the Association for Talent Development, and lives in Winchester, Virginia.

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