- What can be done? Some practical steps
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Although many firms have been surprised at the relative success of the 10 months their staff have spent working mostly or entirely from home, it is highly possible that not all is as well as it seems on the surface.
This is not only due to the likely mental health pressures of enforced isolation and having your private home converted into a work environment (leading to the common refrain that WFH has morphed into “living at the office”). Additional areas of concern will relate to the operational and compliance aspects of remote working.
The remoteness of junior staff and new employees in particular presents risks of all kinds, not least:
- a lack of familiarity with systems and controls which the business has in place, particularly for new starters who have never set foot in the office at all: these could not only jeopardise customer service but also mean that accounting and other important records such as time recording are inaccurate
- insufficient training and supervision for qualification purposes: if the business is unable to provide sufficient work for on-the-job training or is unable to involve trainee staff on calls and meetings, then questions must be asked about whether the firm can certify that the trainee meets the necessary standards for qualification
- lack of quality control due to remote rather than in-person collaboration
- a reduction in staff morale and cohesion, potentially leading to higher turnover and lower productivity
- increased risk of misuse of confidential information, due to a lower perceived likelihood of detecting those who are planning to move to a competitor: see our article Protecting confidential information and trade secrets during the pandemic here for practical tips on how to mitigate this increased risk
- increased risk of inadvertent data breaches, for example because of a greater frequency of emails rather than in-person interaction
- increased risk of employee fraud, both because of the lower chance of detection and the opportunity for wrongdoing in the absence of supervision: see our article Employee fraud during the pandemic: how HR can spot it and what can be done to prevent it here.
What can be done? Some practical steps
None of the discussion above should be taken as saying that the operational and compliance risks associated with WFH will necessarily outweigh the risks associated with travelling to the office. The balance of risks will often come down on the side of employee health. However, just because widespread WFH is the right call for the organisation does not mean that the risks should be ignored.
Firms should consider:
- enhanced file or product audits and checks, to ensure that standards remain high in the absence of a visible workforce
- additional supervision for junior staff including regular catch-ups
- ensuring management are briefed on the tell-tale signs of employee fraud and consider how these can be spotted remotely
- fostering a culture of open communication, as employees may not speak up remotely the way they would in an office (watch on demand Aron Pope and Kolvin Stone discuss Building and maintaining company culture in a remote working environment here)
- stress-testing and keeping under review all policies and processes and ensure they are clear, easy to follow and not unduly onerous. This might entail asking new employees to sense-check the relevant policies governing their role to ensure that they confer as much information as is necessary to carry out their duties without in-person demonstration (although this is no substitute for proper induction)
- making use of the technology available, including electronic signatures, remote social events for staff, and (where necessary and lawful) monitoring system usage by employees and using tools to detect unusual activity
- whether the office can be opened to those who are struggling to work from home on an indefinite basis.
There are a handful of overarching lessons for directors and managers from all of the pitfalls we discuss above. Most importantly, you should where possible anticipate the hazards posed by the pandemic and its economic consequences before they arise. However, when problems do arise, they can be dealt with much more easily when the issues can be detected via clear reporting lines and properly mapped responsibilities. Otherwise, valuable time and energy might be diverted to the blame game and exercises to pass the buck elsewhere, instead of focussing on remedying the problem. Seeking professional advice at an early stage is of course important to mitigate any issues which have arisen.
If you have any questions about these issues in relation to your own organisation, please contact a member of the team or speak with your usual Fox Williams contact.