Make Remote Working “Work” for Your company and Employees

The number of telecommuters has increased suddenly and dramatically due to efforts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s too soon to know whether these temporary measures will change the balance of onsite and remote workers on a permanent basis. It seems likely, however, that a successful remote working experience now will open the door to more demand for the ability to work from home after the health crisis is over.

Before 2005, telecommuting—also known as remote working, mobile working, and working from home—was a rarity. In the fifteen years since, it has increased by 173%, including a 44% increase in the last 5 years alone.1 By the end of 2018, more than 26 million people (16% of the U.S. workforce) were working remotely at least some days.2 And with 50% of all workers now in jobs that can be done remotely, many companies have an opportunity to more fully implement remote work.3

Increasingly, the question isn’t whether to allow employees to work remotely, but rather how to make remote working “work” for both the company and employees. The key is understanding the psychology of remote working and its challenges. The American Psychological Association and others have looked into the subject and offer valuable insights.

Simply allowing telecommuting isn’t enough to ensure its success. According to psychologist Kristen Shockley, companies “also need to shift their culture and norms to support the new arrangement.”There are things to watch for and guard against. And to encourage.

In some cases, the biggest adjustment isn’t by the remote employee, but by his or her manager. Evaluating a remote employee can be a challenge for a traditional manager who depends on regular check-ins to gauge an employee’s engagement and effort. As Jeanne Wilson of the College of William & Mary notes, “In a remote situation, managers must rely more heavily on results. That’s a hard transition for a lot of people to make.”5

It’s important not to unintentionally exclude remote workers. Aetna, which has supported telecommuting for many years, has taken a proactive approach by collaborating with Cornell University psychologists over potential problems such as employee isolation.6 But there are basic best practices you can institute without outside consultants. Be sure to invite remote workers to team events and company-wide events. Since it’s more difficult for telecommuters to socialize with colleagues (a key to building a sense of team), some companies create dedicated virtual meeting places, where the talk can veer away from business towards sports, entertainment and other “water cooler” topics.

Remember that telecommuting employees sometimes have trouble creating a boundary between their work and home lives. Studies show that often they keep working when on-site employees have gone offline for the day. The result can be the exhaustion and burnout many companies try to prevent by offering remote working options in the first place. Be mindful of the long-term effects of unintentionally overworking these employees.7

Think about the composition and structure of your teams, and the frequency of remote work. Research shows that teams composed of members all situated in different locations tend to work together better than teams of mixed on-site and off-site members.8 Also, a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that relationships among colleagues sometimes suffered if they worked remotely three or more days a week.9 Those findings notwithstanding, there are things you can do to build unity within your mixed onsite and offsite teams, even if you have employees working remote all week, every week. Look into strategies that use communication to build “perceived proximity,” a sense of closeness among team members.”10 Other suggestions include formalizing the “goals, roles, and communications methods” of a group with remote members, and having a shared leadership instead of the more traditional top-down structure.11

You might have to fine tune your company’s telecommuting practices and policies, but the effort will likely be worth it. According to Cornell University psychologist Bradford Bell, “the research has generally shown that for most outcomes, remote work leads to small but tangible benefits,” including greater employee satisfaction and performance levels that equal or slightly exceed those of on-site workers.12 Advantages of letting employees work from home include the ability to hire the best candidate even if that person is located in another city, state or region, and work-life balance improvements that make for more satisfied employees. For example, one study found that a company lost 50% fewer employees when it allowed them to work from home.13 Telecommuting can help you recruit and retain employees and stay competitive with other organizations.  If a significant number of employees work off-site, an employer can realize savings in overhead—including payroll. According to one study, 34% of U.S. workers said they were willing to take a pay cut of up to 5% in exchange for the opportunity to work remotely.14 By one projection, even half-time telecommuting arrangements would save businesses an average of $11,000 per telecommuter, per year.15

A Home Office Account provides a convenient way for employers to quickly reimburse employees for their eligible home office expenses and help ease their financial burden. If administered in accordance with IRS regulations, the funds in a Home Office Account are not subject to payroll taxes and they do not count as taxable income to the employee.  At the beginning of a plan year you determine eligible employee purchases and the amount of your company’s contribution.  At the end of the plan year, employees forfeit any money left unspent in their account. In order to maintain its tax-favored status, an expense must meet two criteria: have a business connection; and be substantiated or accounted for within a reasonable time period. Any excess reimbursements must be returned within a limited period.

Offering a Home Office Account can help make remote work viable for your employees. It also positions you as a leader in the growing remote work movement. Use it to recruit the best people and keep great people engaged and productive. There’s a good chance you’ll even save money.

TASC is here to support our customers and provide benefits to assist those in need of creating and maintaining a home office/remote workplace through our tax-advantaged Home Office Account. We have other benefit account offerings tailored to help your employees with unexpected expenses that incur during times of need or in response to a changing workplace. View benefits here –

Posted in TASC Responds News.