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Civil liberties and compliance burdens - the underlying price of the shift to remote working that we all have to pay?

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan February 23, 2021
Working from home is a good thing, right? For most, maybe so, but there are organizational and compliance implications to be considered. And just how happy are you for your employer to track your movements?

(Topia Adapt to a Flexible New Normal )

Employees want to be able to work from anywhere in the so-called ‘New Normal’ and a growing number of employers can see the benefits of this, but both sides could yet be tripped up by compliance issues in the shift to this post-pandemic way of working. 

Nearly a year ago, the onset of COVID-driven lockdowns and stay-at-home orders forced remote working onto the corporate agenda around the world. Since then most organizations have reported that this shift has been, in the main, successful, with most trotting out their ‘surprise’ that productivity didn’t in fact drop off a cliff as their staff cosied up in their PJs with daytime TV rather than focus on their jobs. 

As the Vaccine Economy emerges and the prospect of some form of a potential return to the office becomes increasingly feasible, the question facing most organizations now is what happens next? Some firms, such as Netflix, have been open in challenging the supposed merits of remote working; on the other hand, Salesforce earlier this month declared the death of the pre-COVID 9-5 workday on a permanent basis

Whatever the cliched  'New Normal' does turn out to look like - and it’s going to be ‘horses for courses’ - putting the new working models into long-term practice will present new challenges not only for HR and Recruitment personnel, but for compliance officers as well. 

Mobile talent management platform provider Topia today releases its annual ‘Adapt’ survey, this year entitled Adapt to a Flexible New Normal (registration needed to download). The study polled 1,250 employees, all working for international firms with at least 2,500 employees. Half of the respondents were based in the US and half in the UK, with 250 of the participants being HR professionals. The resulting data confirms the shift to remote is here to stay for most, but also highlights some non-tech stumbling blocks around compliance and civil liberties. 

The findings

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Employees overwhelmingly like remote working. Some 91% of respondents say they should be able to work from anywhere, so long as they get their work done, while 90% now regard flexible working arrangements as critical in their choice of employer, although still not as important as high pay. In fact the importance of salary has risen 6% between 2020 and 2021’s studies, cited by two-thirds of those polled as top priority. 

But ability/flexibility to work remotely is up 7%, now second priority overall, cited by 55% of those questioned. And it’s the principle of remote working that’s the prime concern; the practicalities come lower down the pecking order, with having excellent tech ranked fifth, cited by less than half of respondents (43%). 

That said, 93% of all respondents argue that being able to offer flexible work models is a key priority for job seekers moving forward, although there is an interesting divide between C-level execs, who have drunk the remote working Kool-aid to the bottom of the glass and for three-quarters of whom this is now regarded as very important, and HR professionals on the front line who seem slightly less fired up on 62%.

That’s not to say that the HR department is full of remote working Luddites. Far from it - the study results find 87% agreeing that agility is more important than location, while 90% say teams should be built around skills and experience rather than geographical location. So far, so on message. But when asked about breaking away from traditional organizational structures, enthusiasm seems to fade away somewhat, with just over half (52%) happy with this idea. 

A cynic might argue that the HR team is closer to the workforce and its associated practical operating implications than those on the proverbial top floor of the organization who are more carried away by the management theory. Consider this - 82% of C-level executives say they back the idea of building teams that are not dependent on location, but only a third of interns (33%) are keen. New recruits have always benefitted from joining workforces and learning from older, more established team members. Losing that element of ‘sitting at someone’s shoulder’ is a challenge that will become more and more apparent over time. 

The workplace is also where relationships, both working and personal, are forged, with the Zoom call still unable to replace the water cooler or the canteen in that respect at least. The underlying message here for senior management is surely not to get too carried away by the latest in a long line of ‘remote working is great for everyone’ pitches from consultants and vendors, but to acknowledge the wider direction of travel and work with your HR and Recruitment experts to find how best to adapt your needs to that societal shift. 

HR needs help

That being the case, HR is going to need more help. According to the Topia study, 40% of HR professionals feel they don’t have the right data and insights for decision-making - and the rest of them are probably kidding themselves if they think they do! In terms of remote working, this is particularly true in relation to one basic question - if your workforce isn’t sitting at its desks in front of you, how do you know where your people are and what they’re actually doing? 

As noted above, the anecdotal evidence that’s emerged from organizations sharing their COVID war stories at conferences and in interviews is universally that productivity hasn’t taken a hit and in some cases has actually improved. Putting the cynic’s hat back on, it’s unlikely, of course, that any company is at present going to put itself front-and-center and declare remote working to have been a total disaster. That said, let’s take the idea that it’s not been a negative experience for the majority as read. 

If that’s the case, then what does it matter where your employees are, so long as the work is done? The reality is that it does matter in compliance terms. Organizations do need to know where work is being transacted and this will become much relevant as the Vaccine Economy opens up to travel again. While lockdown for most people has meant ‘house arrest’ in their primary residence, relaxation of regulations will present increasing opportunities to work from the local cafe, a managed office, the pub, a hotel on a long-weekend break or a second home in the country, perhaps even another country? 

Each of those locations could have different implications in terms of organizations being hit by regulatory audits, fines or taxes, the latter particularly relevant if employees divide their working time between states, regions or countries. Employees know this - 61% of those in the Topia study admit to that - but a sizeable chunk don’t care - 28% say they worked outside their home location during the pandemic, but only a third reported all of those days to HR for the records, while 24% didn’t bother at all. 

Keep an eye on me! 

Before we condemn such an attitude, it should be noted that 42% of the 250 HR professionals polled said they were “more likely to have worked in a different state or country”, but still “struggled to report these work days”. Physician, heal thyself!

There’s also a geographical divide here with UK employees slightly more likely than their US counterparts to report all days worked outside their state or country - 36% vs 31%. US respondents are more likely to work outside their home jurisdiction, but this is perhaps hardly surprising given the laxer nature of lockdown regulations in key parts of the US and the ease of inter-state travel.

Nonetheless, there’s a problem evident that will only get worse if remote working is here to stay, but increasingly unfettered by restrictions on travel and movement outside immediate locales. But what can be done? It’s not as if organizations can stick an ankle bracelet on their remote staff and track them, is it? 

Well, actually, it sort of is, albeit without the physical adornment aspect. 

While civil liberties representatives will fling their arms to the sky in horror at the very suggestion, the Topia study indicates that being tracked by your employer is a price that 95% of respondents - employees and employers - say they are willing to pay for being able to work from anywhere. As to the granularity of that tracking, 95% are fine with organizations knowing their state/country location; 94% with that going down to city location; and 81% reckon they can cope with being tracked to street level - and there’s not much difference between US and UK attitudes here. 

That being the case, and if this is a worldview that sustains a long-term validity, then such employee tracking could become a norm and one that would potentially lift a lot of the compliance burden and make HR’s job a lot easier.

It will also, of course, result in a lot of civil liberty palpitations, trades union agitation and an ongoing series of court actions as personal privacy challenges are mounted left, right and center. 

My take

Personally, as someone who’s worked remotely and mostly for myself for decades, I suppose I’m not best-qualified to pass comment on the topic of employers tracking their employees location. That said, I’m instinctively uneasy about it and while I can understand the compliance benefits, it’s a state of affairs that is clearly open to enormous abuse by the more unscrupulous of organizations.

But it’s a useful reminder that the much-lauded shift to remote working isn’t as as simple a matter as unlocking the office doors and letting the workforce roam free in the wild. 

As the crisis conditions of the COVID pandemic ease off over time, the organizational shortcuts that were taken will inevitably be replaced by some remnants of the old order and old bureaucratic ground will be reclaimed. It’s important that organizations begin to think now about the complexities and the subtleties that need to be tackled rather than just sending the CEO out to declare that he or she is all for having a federated workforce, before retreating to let HR work out the practicalities of actually managing it. There are clear benefits to be had from the shift to remote working, but they need to be balanced by awareness of the obligations that accompany them, for both employer and employee. 

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