By Amber Stockham
Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home was a growing trend. Since 2017, more than 5% of Americans have worked from home full-time, as workers look to escape the high cost of living in job-rich areas and technological innovations have made communicating and coordinating from disparate locations easier. Only 29% of current jobs can be done remotely, however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimate last year.
More than other workplaces, schools have been reluctant to allow employees to work from home either part-time or full-time, even for positions that do not require regular contact with students. Now, employees in all departments, from the head of school and faculty to admissions, the business office and even college counseling, are suddenly working from home and often adjusting to a new normal that includes spouses, children and pets sharing their workspace. While remote work can be a positive experience for both managers and staff, arrangements hastily cobbled together in the shadow of a new disease may not be ideal. While there will inevitably be challenges, this moment could provide opportunities to rethink your school’s capabilities both now and in the future.
Remote workers need to know what is expected of them. Some expectations may already be written into job descriptions. Others, however, are unwritten and unspoken, such as availability during certain hours or ability to conduct business in a private setting. Don’t assume anything is “common sense”; do your best to spell out how employees can succeed in new circumstances.
Expectations may vary between exempt and non-exempt employees. Non-exempt employees must be paid for all time they work, which is defined as all tasks performed for the employer, including checking emails. For this reason, non-exempt employees must clock in whenever they are working and clock out when they are done. Clarify particular work hours with non-exempt employees and underscore that they cannot perform work outside these hours without explicit permission from their supervisor.
Exempt employees must be paid their full salary for any week they work. Their salaries can only be reduced in full day increments and only for days on which the employee was not working for a personal reason or was sick and had exhausted their sick leave under an existing policy. Because exempt employees’ work is not usually tied to particular hours, set expectations appropriate to the position. An admissions professional may need to be available 9 a.m.-5 p.m. as a contact for prospective families, but a development professional may be able to perform much of their work after hours. Focus less on the number of hours an exempt employee commits to work and more on evidence that demonstrates they are completing all work assigned.
The difference between success and failure of a high-performing employee with personal limitations may be a candid conversation in which the employee can share their needs frankly and the manager can explain what flexibility, if any, is possible.
Reasonable deadlines are also important. Ask remote employees what potential challenges they may face when working remotely. An employee may have a personal appointment which will require pushing a deadline back a day, for example. Or their home may be near an active construction site which is excessively noisy 7 a.m.-3 p.m., requiring relocation during those hours. The difference between success and failure of a high-performing employee with personal limitations may be a candid conversation in which the employee can share their needs frankly and the manager can explain what flexibility, if any, is possible. If the employee expresses challenges related to medical needs, you may need to document the conversation and any flexibility that was available as an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation.
Also set expectations around the work environment. Consider the permanence (or lack thereof) of the working arrangement, but expectations may include:
- A dedicated workspace free from interruptions during working hours. This need not be a full office, but a space which is ergonomically practical, comfortable and quiet.
- Appropriate technology to complete the work. This may include a computer with a high speed internet connection, telephone, video-conferencing technology and printer. Many employers with a remote workforce provide most or all required technology, as well as basic office supplies to their remote workers, which may increase operational budgets. When provided by the school, this technology should be inventoried and labeled.
- If employees will be video conferencing and/or recording videos, clarify that workspaces should have a neutral background, and that employees should dress in appropriate attire. Make clear that bedrooms are inappropriate workspaces and that any items in the video background should be work appropriate.
Consider sharing a list of productivity tips (see sidebar below). Many people who have never before worked from home may struggle in such a different environment, and a list of proven techniques and suggestions may be appreciated. Schools should supply support and resources consistently to all remote workers.
Clear, consistent and compassionate communications are key. Set a positive tone when communicating with remote workers, and let them know that you believe they can be just as successful from home as from an office or classroom. Avoid micromanaging. Offers of support and opportunities to check in regularly will likely be more helpful when managing performance and viewed more positively. Remote workers, like all employees, are often seeking professional growth, so have professional development conversations and clarify growth plans as regularly with them as with office employees.
Remote workers, like all employees, are often seeking professional growth, so have professional development conversations and clarify growth plans as regularly with them as with office employees.
Remote communications often come without visual or auditory cues. Misunderstanding the tone of an email or why someone is checking in is easy. Further, employees may have difficulty hearing during phone calls or video conferences, which can lead to misunderstandings. Using clear, simple language that is not open to interpretation means remote workers are less likely to over-analyze your communication.
The content of the message should dictate its format. Mass emails are good for conveying community news, and congratulations may be appropriate on a team video conference. Information about an employee’s wage, benefits or job continuation should be provided individually and verbally, followed by a written summary to ensure the employee understood the message.
Remote Performance Management
When assessing performance with any employee, consistent feedback is important, but it is especially critical when communicating with remote workers. Remember that a remote worker does not have the benefit of your body language, tone of voice or social cues to help them further understand what you’re thinking. If an employee misses a deadline or fails to perform their job responsibilities, it is imperative that their manager speak with them immediately to find out what happened and discuss a solution. A remote employee might be dealing with a personal matter or a technology malfunction, for instance, and professional feedback and suggestions can prevent repeated incidents. Talk through a solution and then follow up with a written summary, which provides documentation and may be referenced in future conversations.
When a situation warrants disciplinary action, always speak with the employee verbally either over the phone or in a video chat, and follow up with written documentation of the conversation. Consistently follow all disciplinary policies, including those calling for progressive discipline or probationary time, for both office and remote workers. Make all employees aware of these policies ahead of time, and ensure that remote workers have an updated version of the employee handbook and receive any communications about school policy changes.
Should a remote worker need to be terminated, follow the school’s usual process as closely as possible. Always perform terminations verbally with more than one administrator on the call. Terminate access to all school systems immediately, overnight ship any required documentation (e.g., COBRA documents, wages, and eligibility for unemployment) to the employee’s home, and request a return signature.
Remote workers will often possess valuable school property, such as a laptop, at the time of termination. Evaluate options for recovering property when workers may be upset due to an unexpected separation. These options include sending them along with termination documents a return-addressed and postage-paid box, and offering severance pay if all school property is returned undamaged and an agreement to avoid defamatory language regarding the school and its employees.
The necessary tools will differ depending on the role and employee, but can range from office technology to adequate paid leave and wellness support. These investments in the school’s workforce demonstrate the school’s dedication to its values and its employees’ success.
And regularly acknowledge proficient performance. Most employees want to do their job well, whether they work from home or the office. In fact, when remote workers have the tools to support their particular working environment, they may be more productive than their office counterparts because they have fewer interruptions and are more disciplined about their working hours. The necessary tools will differ depending on the role and employee, but can range from office technology to adequate paid leave and wellness support. These investments in the school’s workforce demonstrate the school’s dedication to its values and its employees’ success.
A Healthy Work Environment
Whether your employees work on campus or from home, fostering a healthy work environment will enhance your school’s culture and community. Regular calls not only reduce miscommunications but break up the quiet of remote workers’ days, and video chats can encourage a greater connection. Having a connection not just with managers, but also with peers is important. Virtual meet-ups or bulletin boards can keep peers connected and foster a sense of “normalcy.”
Remote working arrangements can be beneficial to both schools and their employees. Hiring remote workers broadens and reduces reliance on face-to-face encounters, deepens the applicant pool, and may help level the playing field for individuals from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups in various ways. For instance, as more schools adopt procedures and technologies that support remote work, they may find it easier to hire a diversity of people. Workers with scheduling or location restraints may appreciate the flexibility of remote work. And for schools, the cost of employment may be lower if they do not provide office space, meals and coffee, or commuter benefits. This can free up valuable resources for schools that are already seeking creative ways to make the most of their facilities and finances.