Why Your Company Needs A Permanent Remote Work Policy Now

Climate change figures well. Please share with HR.

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In my past life, I had the strange task of reviewing typhoon alerts I receive directly from the head of our country’s weather bureau. I clarify the data with the head meteorologist then revise the text accordingly to submit a clear, succinct report from which an official decision on the next plan of action can be derived.

The recipient of that information is the President of the Republic of the Philippines.

The Philippines experiences, on average, 20 typhoons a year. Geopolitically, our location in Southeast Asia is strategic but we are also situated along the Pacific Ring of Fire. This makes us vulnerable not just to weather disturbances but to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes as well.

This makes standard operating procedures for natural disaster emergencies mandatory for all companies and organizations that have a business presence here.

This also means that as far back as 2010, my communications team was able to function remotely.

When you work in a government office that tracks the 24/7 news cycle, it makes sense to empower your team with the tools they need to work anywhere, anytime. We intentionally moved away from desktop computers and procured laptops and portable WiFi devices for the speechwriters, social media managers, content developers, and the head of information technology (IT). We were using Blackberry’s at the time and had a group chat to coordinate events with multiple moving parts virtually. We used Google Docs to track developments and edit statements on the fly.

Over the years, with its fair share of natural disasters, you would think that the Philippines has already developed some immunity to them and can readily cope when the next big one hits. You would think that most companies have a remote capability like our office did but they don’t. While they do have emergency manuals and conduct regular drills, most companies still conduct most of their day-to-day operations manually. This is to accommodate the inability of around 16% of our population that is extremely poor, many of whom are illiterate. Not everyone has an ID card or a bank account that is required in online transactions. Digital tools such as cloud computing and automation have yet to be fully embraced by all offices due to technology’s quick obsolescence, slow Internet, and antiquated security systems. The good news is, many organizations have already been implementing a hybrid of manual and digital processes where applicable, so even if, say, an office still has filing cabinets lining the hallway, the archives may be accessed via the cloud.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

To contain the spread of the virus, the island of Luzon was ordered to shut down on March 15. Residents only had three days to prepare. The situation was unprecedented so this was not in the emergency handbook. Most companies had no provision for a remote skeletal workforce. Office workers, including government employees, had to work from home, even if not everyone had a PC or an Internet connection in their residence.

If this had happened while I was working in government, I would feel lost, despite the redundancies and the remote work capacity we already had in place. A typhoon does not put the lives of 48 million people on hold. A typhoon does not paralyze a nation’s economy. A typhoon can still let you run for cover.

A highly contagious coronavirus is deadlier because it is invisible. It instills fear now while we are in hiding and even after we have flattened the so-called curve, which, unfortunately, is still far from happening. When business reopens, will people risk going to an office that could make them ill and require hospitalization which they cannot afford, in the absence of a vaccine? Is a salary worth that risk? I do not think we can rest easy until an effective vaccine has been achieved, which could take months or even years.

This makes a permanent remote work policy not only essential but urgent for any company that intends to survive the pandemic and the resulting recession.

What I propose is for organizations, from non-profits to large-scale corporations, to use this hiatus to mount a counteroffensive against a long-ignored fixture in human existence — climate change.

While it did not directly cause the coronavirus, a warming planet and changes in weather patterns enable the transmission of infectious diseases. According to this article on Foreign Policy:

“Climate change favors outbreaks, as rising heat and humidity spawn surges in populations of disease-carrying mosquitoes, allow water surfaces to suffocate under toxic algae, fill hospitals and agricultural fields with deadly fungi, and change the migratory patterns of birds and animals — which, in turn, carry their microbial hitchhikers to new geographies.”

We also ignored air pollution, which kills 7 million people throughout the world. It is highest in urban centers where commerce thrives, factories are located, and people commute to and from work in their private cars. These greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions exacerbate the warming of the planet.

When a lockdown of China was imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it led to a 40% drop in their nitrogen dioxide emissions from December 2019 to March 2020.

Your company needs a permanent remote work policy because before the pandemic, you were an enabler of climate change.

You required your staff to commute to and from work. You contributed to the congestion. You housed them in an office building that was consuming too much energy. The older air-conditioning units you might still be using are composed of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that emit greenhouse gases.

It is not only you. It is all of us. We all contributed to the problem. But as an organization, you can do more in correcting it if you are intentional about embracing the new normal.

Here’s how to do that.

Review your company’s health policy

Health benefits

One of my larger out-of-pocket expenses as a consultant who works from home is health insurance and my medical check-ups. While I do undergo the usual executive check-up mandated by most companies, I also go for additional blood tests that check for Vitamin D deficiency, homocysteine (a risk marker for heart disease), GGTP (to check if I am drinking too much alcohol) and FBS + Insulin Assay (information regarding insulin resistance).

These blood tests do not cost so much, and I wonder why companies do not require them if they are paying for staff health benefits. The results of these tests help me work on my diet and habits. The company staff should be doing the same. Sleep deprivation and exposure to air pollution are not typically measured as well, which could be shortchanging the company due to lower staff productivity. If employees lack sleep or have bad lungs, the company should know, not to have a reason for potential dismissal but to track their investment in their people.

Testing and vaccines

There are companies that are exploring ways to test their employees for coronavirus symptoms to increase confidence among their employees about coming back to work. The challenge is the dearth of mass testing kits.

As you plan for future pandemics, track the current timeline for the availability of test kits and their cost and then use that as your reference. It is possible that the next pandemic is triggered by another coronavirus, or not. Either way, there should be a line item in your budget that would be unspent in case of a lockdown (i.e. annual company outing) and additional funds earmarked for a medical crisis of this scale so indicate that as the resources to be tapped for testing should an emergency arise.

Promote a plant-based diet in your cafeteria

Meat production produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 14.5% of the total anthropogenic emissions come from global livestock production. Of this, 45% is due to feed production and processing that includes land-use change.

We need to significantly reduce our meat consumption if we are committed to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2. This would require a tremendous shift in our daily dietary habits. For example, my lechon-loving country is far more carnivorous than other developing nations. In 2017, Filipinos consumed an average of 28.8 kg of meat per person per year. That is a lot, but it still pales in comparison to the United States, where an average American consumed 98kg of meat in the same year.

History also shows that earlier flu pandemics were zoonotic — an infectious disease caused by a pathogen that hops from animals to humans. The 1918 flu pandemic originated in birds, the 2009 swine flu came from pigs, and now the COVID-19 seems to have originated from bats. COVID-19 was transmitted to humans via an intermediate animal host that humans like to eat, likely a pangolin, and was traced to a livestock market.

A post-pandemic world could benefit tremendously from companies that foster good health through better eating habits by their employees. They spend most of their time at the office so more vegan and vegetarian fare that is both nutritious and delicious should be enjoyed at the mess hall.

Digitize and automate operations

Not all companies are created equal, but most companies are already connected and communicate virtually (Note: Virtual work is often confused with remote work. Virtual work means working online via email or chat among people who may or may not be in the same location. Remote work means working online with people who are located in another city or country.) The clients I have worked with use G Suite for their company email and file sharing, Trello for project management, and WhatsApp or Viber for group chat. People tend to communicate through these channels even if they are seated next to each other because if it is official, you will want it in writing.

If you are able to get things done virtually, why then do you have to be in a co-located workspace?

The answer to this is unique for each organization, so evaluate your assets. How often do your employees work virtually? Which employees in particular? How often are your physical meeting rooms used? How much time are your employees spending on virtual work versus onsite work?

Once you have some answers, the following processes can be integrated with your assets and help save you time and energy.

Digitization

When your organization is already using virtual tools, I recommend that you take stock of digitizing old documents. This ensures that in case of another apocalyptic shutdown, you will have access to important files saved on the cloud. I use Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and iCloud and have access to these apps on my phone. Do make sure that only a few people have access to these files. You can also use a password keeper such as 1Password so you can change the passwords regularly without having to remember all of them. It is one of my favorite useful apps.

Automation

One of the things I wish my former non-profit client had paid more attention to was on automating the transfer of leads from the website to a CRM. This reduces, if not completely removes, the process of converting a .csv file of new volunteer signups and importing them to a free customer relationship management (CRM) software such as Hubspot. I am a big believer in how CRMs, especially if it is donated, can optimize the good work that non-profits do. It can empower a lean but tech-savvy team with useful real-time data to make cost-effective decisions, track grant money, and engage with new and existing stakeholders.

A great tool for this is Zapier, which automates repetitive business tasks such as sending a message to new leads or alerting the team when an event ticket is sold. Let’s say a non-profit website uses Google Forms to collect data on new sign-ups. You can create a “zap” that connects that to Gmail so you can send a message to your new leads. Without automation software, someone from the office will have to copy and paste those new email addresses or worse, manually input those addresses, before sending the email themselves.

Drafting your remote work policy

There are some useful remote work policy templates floating around which you can already build on but be careful not to rush it, just because you are suddenly remote. A permanent remote work policy would entail some due diligence especially if you plan to integrate the practice with your traditional operations after the lockdown has been lifted.

Since I had worked as a communications manager for a luxury hotel group and therefore familiar with its 24/7 operations, allow me to use a hypothetical 5-star hotel as an example of an organization exploring a more permanent remote work setup.

Involve your staff

By now, you and your team already have some experience in remote work. I can imagine the tremendous back and forth that must have ensued as soon as lockdown orders were imposed, but the questions and responses that were exchanged during that time will be useful as you formulate a more inclusive remote work policy.

You will want more granular data, so involve your team by sending out a survey even to those who do not work remotely. It would be useful to find out from the housekeeping staff who are still changing sheets for guests who are stuck how they are coping:

  • Is the staff quarters comfortable?
  • Are they well-fed?
  • Are they able to communicate with their family?
  • How will sanitizing beds more thoroughly in light of a public health emergency affect their operations?

These questions are just examples and should be revised into a yes/no or multiple-choice format. You must limit the number of open-ended questions so you can measure and analyze the data right away.

Their feedback will be useful in formulating a more responsive skeletal force in your business continuity plan in the event of another pandemic so make sure every member of your organization answers the survey. You also want them to feel that they matter during this difficult time and that you are promptly sorting out how to sustain your business and their incomes.

Identify tasks that can be done remotely

While you are waiting for the feedback, review your organizational chart, and then decide which roles can be done fully remotely, onsite/offsite, and onsite only.

From our previous example, a housekeeping attendant is an onsite employee. This goes for the concierge staff and the kitchen staff. A procurement officer may be able to prepare invoices at home but will have to receive incoming deliveries from suppliers on certain days. Same with the sales team, which will have to meet their prospects at the hotel at a scheduled time. Social media marketing, website updating, room reservations, and restaurant reservations can all be done remotely.

Make a list of roles that can be done remotely with the name of the corresponding staff member next to it. When things normalize, permit a remote work option only after six (6) months to a year of working with the company so that trust is ensured. This privilege should be communicated properly with the rest of the organization to avoid conflict. You can frame it as a means of conserving energy and protecting the environment so by all means, offer that option to all staff members who qualify, who have been forced to suddenly work remotely and may have been with the company long enough.

If the company has international properties, identify which ones actively coordinate with your office. In my experience, I usually worked with the communications officer of the hotel property in Hong Kong and we were in the same time zone. My counterpart there would be able to take on some of my tasks in the event that I am unable to go to work or while my team here is likewise in distress. If you find out that your local staff is communicating more often with the international offices rather than with local ones, that role should probably be remote. This may require a separate survey that details the tasks of each employee, who they work with closely, and the amount of time they spend on each task which I discussed here.

Additional guidelines

Once you have a better grasp of the lay of the land, draft your remote work policy using these guidelines:

  • Which company policies should still be observed when an employee works remotely? (Note: Some traditional companies still require that their staff are online and reachable from 9 AM to 5 PM. You may want to rethink this because effective remote work, in my experience, is not hours-based but output-based. Working parents would appreciate some flexibility especially if their kids see them and would like to be around them as they work.)
  • How will you communicate? How often? Communication is vital in a remote work setup because the invisible (remote worker) has to make herself felt. She has to be extra responsive to her boss and team.

From the get-go, I decide with my client when our weekly 1:1 should happen, and my hours of work every day. We communicate directly via WhatsApp, and via Zoom for the daily check-ins with the team in the morning. He knows that I am out of my desk by 7 PM.

As a company, you cannot be communicating on Skype today and then Zoom tomorrow. You would want those calls and written chats recorded in one place so you or someone who may have missed a meeting can refer back to it in the future.

  • Who will pay for the equipment and access to the Internet? Some companies reimburse their staff for some home expenses. Others even provide the laptop and a standing desk. This should be made clear from the start.

Work with IT

Consult your company’s IT guy regarding hardware and software requirements and for which roles. For an actual hotel, this would require an additional hotel reservation tool for some staff and doubling up on data privacy and security. Assess what other needs apply to your company.

This will not be easy to implement, but I hope it will help make the already painful transition to the new normal easier, especially for companies that were forced to work remotely for the first time. It will be for the best, for all of us who want to live on a planet that has cleaner air and less traffic, and a home that is far better than when we found it.

Written by

Former presidential speechwriter, still a musician; writes about urban gridlocks. Will work full time for the planet. Harvard Kennedy School ‘14 🇵🇭

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