Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting

Some employers are beginning to announce transitions to remote-friendly or all-remote workforces even after office work is judged safe again. This has a lot of potential upsides in reducing commutes, in increasing job opportunities outside of established tech centres, in giving people access to their preferred working styles.

But there’s also a lot of potential downsides where employees personally pay to recreate the parts of the office experience they need and nevertheless find that their career tops out early or that they’re summoned or semi-summoned back to a tech centre just as they’ve started to realise the benefits of remote work.

Thus, just as I’ve written before about questions you should ask when hired into an existing remote position, you should ask a similar set for a company or position transitioning to remote work, to make sure that it is invested for the long term and is clear about any career or financial sacrifices you will be required to make to be remote.

Are there limits on where employees can be located? It’s quite common for remote employees to be required to be based in certain timezones, countries, or states/provinces where the employer already has some kind of established presence.

Is this transition in fact permanent, or is there a review date? Moving away from a city is a very large investment, often in direct costs but definitely in opportunity costs. Best to make such a decision on a strong commitment from an employer to a long time frame.

Will compensation be adjusted downwards for employers who relocate to an area with lower cost of living (or lower market salaries)? There are some remote-first or remote-friendly employers who pay the same salary no matter where employees are located, but also many which pay against local cost of living or local market conditions.

Will all remote compensation be adjusted downwards on the assumption that everyone will leave high cost of living areas? Hopefully not! Because some people have substantial investments in their current area of residence, eg commitments to their partner’s career or to their local family or friends, or to the cultural scene or their hobbies, or to retaining the option to leave their current employer for another that will require them to be office-based.

Will employees who move to an area with less generous minimum benefits have their benefits cut? Eg, will they lose days of vacation or carer’s leave? Will their insurance be revised in line with their new residence’s minumums?

Will there be formal limits on which positions are available remotely?

Even in the software, creative, and research positions that can be done remotely, it’s common for companies to not allow all positions to be remote. Here’s some possibilities for what this might look like:

  • you can’t become an executive if you’re remote
  • you can’t become a people manager at all if you’re remote
  • you can’t do security-sensitive or personnel-sensitive work if you’re remote
  • you can’t achieve a certain job level if you’re remote

Best to know!

If the company is indeed open to all positions being remote, how are they going to ensure equality of opportunity?

If there are going to still be offices, it may in theory be possible to become an executive or a high level staff member while remote… but it eventually emerges that no one is actually doing those jobs remotely, that those folks are all office-based.

What does the employers plan for developing remote staff careers look like and how will they audit its success?

Will there be training and resources for workers transitioning to remote, for managers who are remote or managing remote workers, etc?

There are specific skills required to manage and be part of both all-remote teams and mixed-remote-office teams. Will these be taught to employees? Will there be trained support for specific situations that may arise (eg, it may be more difficult to reach remote employees in a suspected emergency)?

Will there be financial support for the costs of remote working?

Remote working passes the office maintenance costs onto employees, eg substantial extra energy costs (particularly in areas with very cold winters or very hot summers), additional space, need for office furnishings, higher Internet bills and larger mobile plans, IT equipment, etc. Will the employer reimburse these costs and to what extent?

Ideally this support isn’t too specific. Eg, “we’ll pay for a co-working space”: co-working spaces usually have open office plans and quite a few involve hotdesking (especially if you’re part-time). They’re thus generally not suitable for people who have a lot of sensitive meetings (ie most managers or HR staff), some people who need physical accommodations, or people who are unable to work well in open plan offices.

Conversely, “we’ll pay to fit out your home office”: establishing a home office requires that people have or can afford to move to a place with an extra room, and usually that there are only one or at most two people in the home who need a home office.

Flexibility is better.

Will business travel be mandatory or strongly encouraged?

Quite a lot of remote teams rely on an mandatory or near-mandatory all-hands in-person get together once or twice a year for team building purposes. This may be an easy trade for some to get the benefits of remote work, but it may not be for others, especially for primary carers.

This question may be especially relevant for people who are going to be one of the few remotes on their team and may be expected to travel to the office regularly; and also for managers, who are occasionally expected to travel out to each of their remote reports periodically.

Will there be allowed to be children/dependants in the house during working hours and are there restrictions on their care arrangements? At least when schools and daycares are open, it’s common for employers to insist that if there are children/dependants living with a remote worker, they must have a carer who isn’t the worker. It’s possible (jurisdiction dependent) for them to insist that the house must not have dependants present in work hours at all.

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Questions to ask of employers transitioning to supporting permanent telecommuting by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Working In Stressful Times

The world-wide flowering of work from home tips is great, but I think what we might all benefit from, now, is working-while-under-extreme-stress tips. These are highly person specific, but for what it’s worth:

Think to yourself “what’s the next thing?” and do that thing, rather than making huge todo lists.

Sometimes the next thing might be stepping away from work for an hour. Really.

Sometimes work is a great distraction. Really.

It’s OK to have meetings that are mostly for the sake of social contact! It’s common for workers to talk about meetings as if they’re at best a necessary evil. For some folks right now, they’re actively a good thing. Virtual coffees and all that, they’re not just for regular work from home isolation, they’re also for pandemic lockdown isolation.

It’s not your job to save the world and also you don’t have the right training. Politicians, public health authorities, and medical professionals have years of experience and/or study in an entirely different field that you don’t have (mostly, I bet there’s someone reading with an MPH or MD or parliamentary experience). Yes they’re confused, contradictory and making mistakes right now because no one is actually good at this. Nevertheless. Social distance and washing your hands and adhering to any lockdowns is basically your contribution, right now. It’s OK to do what you’re told and not feel the need to become a public health expert.

Consider why you’re consuming news. Unfortunately, there are plenty of good reasons for it (eg it’s where you find out what the current public health advice is, you’re tracking family or friends or neighbourhoods, you’re planning to cross an international border or even leave your city any time in the next month) but at least keep your goal in mind. “I need to know whether or not I’m allowed to fly” is different from “I need to know whether I can leave my house” and they’re both different from “I need to know the death toll today in [place I have few ties to].”

Under stress, you might revert to patterns of behaviour you have outgrown or even have done a lot of work to get rid of. You won’t know yourself or be able to predict your own behaviour as well as you usually can. Be kind to yourself if you find yourself doing things that are reactive or defensive.

A lot of people are under extreme stress right now. Likewise, be generous in how you interpret their behaviour. You don’t need to put up with abuse or nastiness, but for things like “you’re repeating yourself a lot” or “you’re planning for the worst case for this project” or “that was one too many tiny critiques in a code review” just keep in mind they’re likely having an extremely bad week too.

Employees needing the most support during an abrupt telecommuting transition

With many employers suddenly transitioning their staff to work from home during the COVID-19 outbreaks, a lot of people are hoping that at least we might get a major transition to permanent support of telecommuting out of the whole thing, by demonstrating a large increase in productivity that it’s assumed follows from working from home.

But working from home is a major infrastructure problem at both a household and a societal level and this will turn out to be a pipe dream if we rely on employees to absorb the cost of long term work from home transitions.

Focusing on the household level, here’s the employee who is best suited to a short-notice work from home: they live in a quiet clean home, with a furnished private office. When they close the door, it stays closed. If they live with children, those children are cared for by another adult, who handles small and medium stresses by themselves. Their pets are quiet or cared for by someone else or both. They have access to a best-in-class business-grade broadband Internet connection. They can do their work with fairly standard office and computer equipment. If they have a disability, their home is already set up to accommodate it well. They enjoy their work well enough and are motivated by the work itself rather than by social connections with their colleagues or by close management. They have an established and sufficient set of social relationships outside the workplace.

And all this is on top of having a transportable profession such as software development, writing, some types of academic research, and some office support jobs.

That’s a lot of ducks to have lined up. Even leaving aside transportable professions, here’s some examples of employees who may be more at risk from work from home, especially from sudden transitions to it:

They share a home with someone who is abusing them, especially if that person is present in work hours. Abuse might include more violence or cruelty following from blaming the victim for stresses on the household, or simply from more access to them. It might also be financial abuse, such as interfering with the victim’s work in order to try and get them fired or get them to quit.

They can’t set up office-like conditions in their home because their home is too small, or they’re a tenant, or they don’t have enough rooms for an office, or they don’t have a private room at all, or they don’t have broadband cabling or their Internet service quality is variable or poor, or they don’t have the money for the required furnishings. Or they have all that but they live with someone who already works from home and claimed the available office space first.

Their home is physically unpleasant due to uncleanliness or bad maintenance (possibly in their control, but might be due to housemates, children, their landlord’s poor maintenance, etc), or nearby construction or traffic noise.

They have a lot of competing priorities at home that draw their attention: other adults are in the house during work hours and are bored or lonely, there’s errands to run, there’s a dog to walk, they get a lot of doorknocking, their family and friends are under the (common) impression that someone who works at home isn’t “really” working and is available for long lunches or drop by chats or can watch other people’s children all day on short notice, etc.

They require workplace accommodations that are difficult to access in their own home, eg an aide, or specialised equipment that needs professional installation, or they’ve been relying on the office for some accommodations such as hard to get foods or a fully accessible shower.

They have an office, but when they close the door, everyone else in the house knocks on it incessantly or issues ear-splitting screams or barks from the other side for hours.

They live with children and those children’s school or daycare is closed, and there’s no other adult in the house or that adult also has a job, so they have to full-time parent/homeschool them on top of having a job.

They live with children and there’s notionally another adult to care for them but that adult hands over everything except perfect behaviour and conditions to them. “The children don’t like the lunch I made! Can you make them one?” “The child has bruised their knee, they need your hugs!” “I don’t understand nappies!” “My video gaming commitments / meditation practice will consume the next three hours, can you watch the children?” (This is a highly gendered co-parenting pattern, your women employees co-parenting with men are more at risk.)

They don’t like their work and they struggle to do it without regular attention from managers or colleagues.

They do like their work OK, but they still rely on regular in-person human interaction, including in ways they may not realise themselves, in order to maintain a regular work cadence or prioritise their work or feel good about their work.

They don’t have sufficient adult social contact without a workplace because they have high social needs, or are a single parent, or live alone unwillingly, or are newly single, or recently relocated.

They’re conflict avoidant and they sometimes deal with conflict by deferring contact with the other person in the conflict. Work from home enables them to ignore chats, decline video meetings, etc in a way that would not be possible in an office. Small interpersonal problems become big ones quickly. (Spoiler: nearly everyone is sometimes conflict avoidant, and nearly everyone sometimes uses electronic communication to defer conflict.)

How do you adapt to these? Not easily, which is why a sudden and forced transition to work from home is in my opinion unlikely to lead to an emphatic demonstration of telecommuting’s superiority, but some provisions include:

  • acknowledge at least some of these concerns, and set aside some budget and manager discretion to expense better internet connections, office equipment furnishings, emergency childcare, ability to rent a small amount of personal private office space
  • initiate or strengthen your support around both mental health and around domestic violence situations and be sure they don’t need access to the office
  • seek advice on whether small gatherings of employees are safe (in the COVID-19 context) and if so, encourage optional cafe meetups and similar
  • actively review with employees who have workplace accommodations whether and how you can provide these in their homes
  • create additional leave plans (paid if possible) for people whose childcare and dependent care plans have fallen apart and cannot be reconstructed
  • consider how you will manage performance reviews and career planning for people who took a productivity hit

Thanks @hashoctothorpe and @leeflower for discussions leading up to this post and identifying some of the patterns listed here.

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Employees needing the most support during an abrupt telecommuting transition by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.