How HR can improve the remote-worker experience?

With flexible working becoming a trend, it has given rise to the number of people working remotely. What can companies do to help them work better?
By: | January 23, 2020

When it comes to remote work, things aren’t always easy, despite the lack of commute, relaxed dress code and increased flexibility for personal and family priorities.

A recent NetMotion survey of 285 mobile employees identified five categories of frustration: poor network connectivity, under-performing tools and software, slow and dated devices, restrictive security and compliance, and collaboration and communication issues.

Despite the tech orientation of these challenges, HR can play a mission-critical role: to help ensure that remote employees receive the same quality of employee experience as in-office colleagues do. Plus, remote workers are a huge and growing segment of the U.S. workforce. A mid-2019 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics said some 36 million people, or 25%, of U.S. employees work from home at least part of the time.

“Having the right software, the right IT equipment and a really strong culture that values the individual experience is key,” says Christina Balam, vice president of human resources for NetMotion, a mobile-software provider. “It is far too easy to forget about the remote worker because you’re not seeing them every day.”

HR’s role is not to direct tech choices, but rather work with the IT team to develop strategic priorities for remote workers to steer which devices, software and connectivity are chosen. This balances IT priorities like personal and company data security with HR concerns about usability, efficiency, convenience and team collaboration.

“HR has an opportunity to be real change agents and help modernize the employee experience,” adds Ben Brooks, founder and CEO of PILOT Inc., a software-based employee-coaching platform, who also had a six-year stint in HR at three Marsh & McLennan companies.

While IT budget considerations may make a company fall behind in the latest tools and tech, Brooks says, HR can encourage adoption of more modern approaches that will impress younger and more tech-savvy employees and also improve talent acquisition and retention.

“HR has a lot of skin in the game because they’re not able to recruit and retain people … who go home and have lights they can turn on with their voice,” he says. “They have a 4D TV, right? They’ve got super-fast things. They can mirror screens.”

HR also can advocate for end users, he suggests, funneling feedback and providing strong business reasons for improving the remote tech experience to encourage strong performance and productivity.

A Real Connection

Successful teams have five things in common, according to a recent Microsoft collaboration with IDEO: team purpose, collective identity, awareness and inclusion, trust and vulnerability, and constructive tension.

“In our research and through conversations with customers, we’ve seen [that] the most successful organizations collaborate across HR, IT and facilities to achieve a common vision that considers how culture, technology and physical space can come together in a way that helps build engaged and motivated teams who feel connected to the organization’s mission,” says Veronika Kiseleva, product marketing manager for Microsoft Teams.

While digital collaboration can be very effective as a productivity tool, tech can also help with the drop-off in emotional context, as well as an increase in the time and energy required to work remotely with team members. Kiseleva says that’s why Microsoft Teams was designed to incorporate emojis, GIFs and high-quality video calls.

Balam of NetMotion adds that team collegiality is helped by inviting remote workers to periodic in-person and virtual meetings, bringing new hires to the central headquarters for orientation to build a connection to the team, and having line managers and leaders make a concerted effort to maintain regular contact with remote workers.

To blend tech with connection, Brooks suggests “virtual happy hours” when all the remote members grab a beverage of their choice and hop onto a connecting technology for concalls, video calls or text chats, simply to talk with each other.

Risky Business

There are risks, of course, for not paying attention to what remote workers are doing from their home office or café. In addition to the obvious personal/company data privacy and security issues, there are also compliance and liability risks, says Joel Windels, chief marketing officer for NetMotion. Examples include violating the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, visiting gambling sites or conducting web searches on topics that are suspicious.

“It might be something even more severe, [such as if there’s] a terrorist incident or some kind of alarming event and they’ve been browsing weapons websites, [which is] something that ultimately the companies are responsible for,” he adds.

Brooks notes that HR should also ensure that employees’ home-office setups don’t violate the company’s ergonomic standards and policies regarding workplace-injury prevention: “Do they have a large monitor, or are they looking at their tiny laptop screen all day? Do they have the right desk or chair? If they are going to video conference, do they have the right lighting? We buy everyone a professional light that they can set up and they look attractive and they don’t look like they’re in a ransom situation when they’re on a video conference.”

HR can also play a role in encouraging people to use technology the company makes available. You won’t get buy in, Brooks says, unless you “market it to them and make it sexy and exciting. They won’t use it if we don’t make this fun and easy.”

Finally, because HR’s mission is to improve the employee experience, there’s been a slight rise in some tech-oriented HR roles. Much of that shift has been aimed at improving the employee experience involving HR-related technology—and, to an extent, with tech in general—says Richard Veal, global practice leader in communication and change management with Willis Towers Watson, based in London.

“More attention is being paid to the employee experience, which is a strong general trend,” he says. “Remote workers ought to benefit from that.”

Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected].