Remote work and hybrid work arrangements can be complicated. Who gets to decide how much time employees spend in the office? Is it discriminatory to allow some to work remotely while requiring others to work on site? How do we know if remote workers are being productive? It’s time to push pause, review our practices, and establish new policies.
During the pandemic, remote work was the norm for church staff. Initially, we granted all workers great leeway as they negotiated complex personal demands while also working from home.
Returning to the Office
Post-pandemic, some staff rushed back to the office to regain a sense of normalcy and reestablish face-to-face relationships. Others felt safer or more effective working from home or in some hybrid arrangement (working some days at home and some days in the office).
Early in the pandemic, the decision about when to return to the office and how much time to spend working remotely was often left to the worker. This left many supervisors puzzled about their role in setting and enforcing policy.
In recent months, a “return to the office” movement has swept the country, with progressive tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook requiring their workforce to be in the office several days each week. Even Zoom, the company that empowered the remote work revolution, now requires some workdays in the office because it is best for the business.
Congregations are confused about whether to participate in this movement. Can we, and should we, require staff to work more hours onsite?
Is Remote Work More Effective?
Research on the effectiveness of remote work is growing. The data provides some clarity but also reveals complex factors we don’t yet understand.
Generally, employees given the option to work from home are more satisfied and happier than those required to work full-time onsite. Employees benefit from increased flexibility, reduced commute time, and fewer interruptions. Happier employees are more productive employees.
At the same time, most managers who supervise remote workers are less satisfied and believe that productivity has declined. Coordination of work among employees is more difficult. Informal networking is diminished. Collaboration is more challenging. It’s difficult to build a strong organizational culture.
According to Mortenson and Hass in “Making the Workplace Fair,” remote work is complicated by power imbalances that impact influence. Employees who work onsite have better access to current information and resources. Their opinions are considered more readily in decision making. Being in the office also provides better emotional and task-based social support from peers.
Not all employees possess the skills required to work well remotely. Hybrid work requires proficiency in building relationships, both face to face and virtually. Remote employees rely on informal connections to replace natural gaps in information. They need access to current technology and must be comfortable using it. They require strong internal motivation and disciplined work habits.
The research does not universally support remote work over onsite, or vice versa. Each situation must be evaluated based on the circumstances.
Supervisors Set the Expectations
Employee preferences should be taken into consideration. However, we should not let individual employees decide whether they will work remotely, co-locate with their supervisors, or work in some hybrid arrangement. The decision about how to structure the role is always the responsibility of the supervisor, within the confines of clearly defined and uniform employment policy.
Employment law does not require that all employees be given the same opportunities when it comes to remote work. Instead, the employer should adopt a written policy that empowers supervisors to set expectations for each staff member. The policy should require supervisors to consider the demands of the role and the skill set of the individual occupying the role. It should also state that employees working remotely are expected to provide a suitable environment for doing so.
The most important thing in a supervisory relationship is clarity—about the essential functions of the role, the competencies required of the person, and the expected outcomes. Expectations about standard work hours, acceptable communication strategies, and required availability during work hours also must be clear.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends creating a remote work conduct policy. An effective policy should address:
- How accessible employees are required to be during scheduled work hours, and how quickly they are expected to respond to requests from others.
- Which work rules and policies apply to offsite work locations and which do not.
- Standards for providing a quiet and distraction-free space for remote work.
- How to keep a remote workspace free from safety hazards.
- Preferred methods of communication (email, text, phone, video) for different kinds of issues.
- Behavioral expectations during meetings: For example:
- Distractions are to be kept to a minimum. No music or television is allowed in the background during meetings.
- Keep yourself muted during video or audio conferencing unless you are speaking.
- Turn on the video whenever possible, although this is not required.
- Smoking or vaping is not permitted during a video conference.
- Avoid eating a meal during a virtual meeting unless invited to do so by the meeting host.
- Observe dress codes during meetings. No pajamas or other apparel that would not be appropriate outside the home.
- Avoid multi-tasking. Give your full attention to the meeting as if you were face to face.
Provide Ongoing Feedback
Remote workers are more susceptible to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and stress. As a result, they need more regular communication with their supervisors than co-located employees.
Bear the following guidelines in mind as you set up regular check-in conversations with remote employees.
Avoid Micromanagement. When you can’t watch someone at work you may grow uneasy about how industrious they are while working. You may be tempted to check in too often. This can quickly devolve into micromanagement. Instead, focus on agreed upon outputs and outcomes, rather than on tracking activity level.
Establish Alternate Communication Methods. Remote employees are prone to video meeting fatigue. Blend your communication strategies so that remote employees can participate in some in-person meetings (if possible), some phone conversations and some video conversations.
Use Collaboration Tools. Make sure that your entire team uses software and productivity tools that enhance the work of the whole team, but especially those tools that allow remote workers to participate fully.
Pass Along Informal Information. The remote worker doesn’t have access to the “water cooler” conversations that happen spontaneously in an office. They are often left out of the personal information team members share with one another during breaks, over lunch or during a casual walk-by. Dedicate a part of each of your check-in conversations to share appropriate team updates.
Remote work arrangements are here to stay and will continue to evolve in the years to come. With increased clarity, you can bring out the best in your remote and on-site workforce. You can ensure healthy working relationships and build a healthy staff team culture.
Susan Beaumont is a coach, educator, and consultant who has worked with hundreds of faith communities across the United States and Canada. Susan is known for working at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality. She specializes in large church dynamics, staff team health, board development, and leadership during seasons of transition.
With both an M.B.A. and an M.Div., Susan blends business acumen with spiritual practice. She moves naturally between decision-making and discernment, connecting the soul of the leader with the soul of the institution. You can read more about her ministry at susanbeaumont.com.