With COVID-19 still running rampant throughout the country, many businesses have allowed (or been forced to allow) their employees to telecommute. Eventually the day will come when the threat from COVID-19 will decrease, and wide-scale telecommuting will no longer be necessary from a public health standpoint. With employees getting comfortable working in their loungewear, companies should promptly start planning out what the return to “normal” will look like for their workforce. Given the success of extensive telecommuting during the pandemic, it seems doubtful that companies will fully return to their “pre-COVID-19” levels of telecommuting.
Start to Evaluate Your “New Normal”
Figuring out what the “new normal” will look like concerning telecommuting six months or a year from now should begin as soon as possible. Employees will need clear expectations about their ability to telecommute once we are past the COVID-19 pandemic. Ask yourself “what should our telecommuting practices look like after COVID-19?” Once this question is answered, companies should create a plan of action, and figure out how and when to roll it out to employees. Nobody can predict the future and determine when the pandemic will end, so a return to “normal” may still be many months away. However, these decisions should be made sooner rather than later so that there is enough time to plan and distribute the information to employees. In addition, there may be new policies that need to be written, technology platforms installed, or hardware purchased to implement – depending on your company’s envision of the “new normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Telecommuting vs. Working from Home – What’s the Difference?
While developing your company’s new normal, draw a distinction between “working from home” and “telecommuting” – because there is a difference. The main difference between telecommuting and working from home is frequency. Working from home is typically used infrequently with no set, permanent schedule. Working from home is generally used during an emergency or an unanticipated situation, such as a snowstorm, a power outage at the office, or if your child is sick and needs to stay home from school.
By contrast, telecommuting refers to employees who work from a remote location (often their home) full-time. Things such as payroll taxes and work locations for purposes of workers compensation reflect the employee’s home address.
Telecommuting Before and After COVID-19
Pre-COVID, the usual large employer had approximately 3% to 9% of their full-time employees telecommuting. During COVID-19, that number has increased dramatically, with some businesses reporting that 40% to 90% of their workforce is currently telecommuting. While that number will likely decrease once the pandemic diminishes, most experts foresee that the “new normal” level of telecommuting will remain much higher than it was before. With that new reality, employees’ and job candidates’ expectations about their capability to telecommute will change dramatically – so much so that being able to work remotely may become part of the typical benefits package that businesses offer.
There are reasons that business leaders have resisted telecommuting efforts in the past. There are the common misconceptions – “our business can’t work that way” or “employees are not as productive” or “working from home is just a vacation day.” While it seems natural to think that employees who do not work at an office everyday will be less productive, research actually show the opposite. Employees (and the companies employing them) are actually reporting an increased level of productivity among telecommuting employees.
Another issue with telecommuting is the struggle of providing remote employees with the same technology and security standards that they would have in the office. This was a bigger concern numerous years ago, but today, most companies utilize laptops, tablets, and cell phones – which are entirely portable and generally operational from any location. While protecting company devices and information from malware, viruses, and other electronic intrusions is a valid worry, most of the security software, firewalls, and Virtual Provider Networks (VPN’s) are either cloud based or are already installed on the device and therefore protects the device whether it is at your workplace, your house, or on the road.
A final consideration is the size of your existing office. Your current office is large enough for all employees to work there and only occasionally “work from home” — not permanently telecommute. Companies could now face the real prospects of paying rent for additional, unused office space that previously was taken up by workers who now telecommute. Some companies are already coming to grips with this scenario and are trying to mitigate their soon-to-be extra space problem by re-negotiating their leases, subdividing and subleasing part of their office to another company; or eliminating some offices and turning them into group meeting spaces.
COVID-19 has taught us many things this year. In January 2020, it would have been unthinkable that a large percentage of our country’s workforce would be performing their jobs remotely, but here we are. We’re making it happen. Every business has to decide whether wide-scale telecommuting is workable as a permanent part of its culture. Take the necessary steps to evaluate the effectiveness and feasibility of wide-scale telecommuting.