Shaping the future with your remote workforce

19 October 2020

Original content provided by BDO Hong Kong & Macao

Portia Tang, Director and Head of Professional Resources Solutions & Client Services, BDO Hong Kong |

As Hong Kong continues to grapple with COVID-19, many of us have already got used to social distancing and meeting online by now. It is amazing how we have all found new ways to adapt to this new normal – we continued to stay in touch with friends and relatives virtually, even our grandparents were taught how to use videoconference facilities such that everyone can continue to stay connected.

We should be confident, with all the preventive measures that our governments have put in place, eventually, there will be day when the global spread of COVID-19 is under control and more importantly, a day when a reliable vaccine is ready and available for widespread distribution. It is just a matter of time, but no one can predict when this day will come. 

Rather than falling into the realm of speculation, HR professionals and business leaders should play a proactive and leading role in nurturing their people to stay abreast of the times with the onset of utilising remote workforce! In other words, they would need to be empowered by senior management to act as innovative champions: to be on top of the latest trends, responsible to obtain market intelligence and to keep an eye on what competitors are doing. They should also be responsible to lead the organisation in designing and implementing innovative changes so as to ensure business sustainability and maintain competitiveness in the market place from both corporate reputation and employer branding perspectives.   

Discovering the key benefits of remote working

While some companies are still struggling with the question on whether they should embrace remote working and implement relevant arrangements across the organisation, successful leaders have proven beyond doubt that an optimised remote work plan can be the game changer for their business to thrive during this aberrant period and thereafter. Below is a list of key benefits of embracing remote working, which may help inspire and encourage the implementation of this important practice in your business:

  1. Lower operating costs
    With befitted technology, equipment, tool and infrastructure in place, remote-enabled companies are able to operate their business efficiently through hiring and engaging the remote workforce. These companies will have a much greater chance to achieve ongoing business sustainability as remote working allow businesses to operate under greater flexibility which facilitates them to achieve long term cost savings. These substantial savings in cost are directly related to operational expenses, including office space rental, utility costs, staff travelling expenses, administrative expenses such as printing and stationaries etc.  
  2. Attracting millennial talents and enhance employee satisfaction
    Workplace flexibility is one of the most attractive offerings employers can provide to job seekers. It helps to expand a company's talent pool by tapping into the most sought-after demographics - millennials. Being the largest pie in the labor population, this group of talents holds high expectations on the perks provided by the company, prompting from rewards to fringe benefits, and from working hours to flexible workplace. Statistics also revealed that this group of talents have greater willingness to forgo more than 10% of their salaries to grasp the flexibility that remote working can provide. This will benefit the company in achieving an overall improved staff retention status. 
  3. Greater workplace diversity
    By leveraging the convenience of e-communication tools, it removes geographical obstacles by eliminating hiring borders, opening the firm to a wider pool of talents. With greater diversity and cross-border experiences blended in a team, businesses will be enabled to achieve higher innovation, creativity, company branding and reputation.

Getting buy-ins from the management team

The nurturing of 'out-of-the-box' thinking should always start from the senior management level. HR leaders of every organisation should be driven by its purpose of acting continuously for the betterment of the company. HR leaders have the responsibility to share the latest HR trends and market insights with the senior management team on a periodic basis. The purpose is to keep them updated on what's happening in the market and what competitors are doing to attract and retain talents, as well as introducing new ideas for the purpose of making the company a better place for the employees work at. By doing this, the senior management should be better prepared whenever new concepts and ideas are required to be introduced, this should also translate to easier acceptance by the management team.  

Remote working or work-from-home is one of the most pertinent trend of today. In fact, with the COVID-19 outbreak, companies were not left with much choice: either to shut down their operations or forced to experiment remote working. As far as we can observe, companies that are well prepared and equipped with the relevant IT infrastructure, platforms and tools were able to continue to operate their business via remote working although they were struggling slightly at the beginning, whereas many of the traditional companies that are still practicing and doing business in the good old way were forced to close down part if not all of their operations. After months of closing down, many of these companies have finally awaken, realising that they can no longer operate a business like before, and have started to explore options that will allow them to continue carrying on their business while community lock-down requirements and/or social distancing measures are in place, one of which is the practice of remote working.  Nevertheless, many of them have only just realised that remote working is not simply about changing a place to work, but it requires a change in the entire work mode, as well as the investment of time and materials to implement technologically advanced equipment and tools that allows effective remote working to be carried out. But this is not the end, the most challenging part is to reskill and/or upskill the existing workforce, transforming them to work as part of the remote workforce. 

While the 'people first' culture is always held in high regard amongst society, armed with the pressure to keep up with the ever-changing situation, businesses should start revisiting their Business Continuity Plan (BCP) if they have not yet done so. Having an effective, properly implemented and attested BCP is crucial for operating a business in today's world. In the past, remote working may form part of a company's BCP process but post-COVID, it will surely be one of the most popular trend, and an essential practice to help businesses achieve sustainability.  

Striding towards the optimal remote work deployment – What are the key elements to consider?

Whether you are looking to bring your remote work intention to reality or reassessing your existing policies, a benchmarking exercise serves as a good starting point for your business.

Delay no more, it is time to get started in formulating or revisiting your remote working policy now using the below as guidance. The eight key areas to consider when devising an effective remote work policy from concept to execution are as follows:

  1. Empowerment – Senior management should empower HR and business stakeholders, giving them rein to offer remote working as an option for employees to choose from. For those that have not started any remote work deployment on a company-wide basis, it may be appropriate to start off by identifying special cases that satisfies remote work conditions, and slowly introduce the concept of remote working culture within the organisation. Then subsequently, when remote working has become more receptive and extending to become a formalised option across the company, HR would then have to start identifying what will be the differences between the remuneration packages, benefits and employment supports to be offered to remote workers and those to the employees who are and will remain to work physically at the office. 
  2. 'Remote-ability' assessment – When business demands are in a state of continual change, HR professionals will need to start discussion with business leaders to determine the types of roles that are feasible to function effectively under a remote manner (ie preferably jobs that can be performed indoor and remotely with the use of technology). Next, is to ensure that the company is technologically ready to maintain operational efficiency during remote working. Other than these factors, there is also the 'people' element that many businesses would have easily overlooked. It is extremely crucial for business leaders to ensure that employees are psychologically prepared and possesses the required skills, work ethics, while leaders should understand the job holders' personal attributes and obtain a better knowledge of the home environment to ensure safety and suitability. These essential elements will impact the decision on staff deployment and scheduling under a remote working arrangement. All in all, a successful remote work deployment will involve a holistic assessment of its overall impact on the company's people, business and operations.
  3. Insurance – This is highly relevant and important to all companies. As responsible employers, we should make sure that we have the relevant insurance policies in place with adequate coverage over potential liabilities and more importantly, be in compliance with the Employees Compensation Ordinance. This involves checking whether the current insurance policy includes a provision for working from home or remote working arrangements as accidents may happen whilst the employee is performing work out of the office. We should take necessary care in our selection and provision of the right tools and equipment, making sure they are safe to use before giving them to our employees for use remotely. With that being said, we should arrange to have our insurance policies reviewed by insurers in order to identify the potential gaps or coverage issues, if any. Finally, we should arrange changes to be made in our policies with the goal to align the company's coverage with the different risks that are potentially involved in remote operations.
  4. Hiring strategies and cost analysis – In the midst of anxieties over business continuity in the deteriorating global operating environment, adopting effective yet cost efficient 'hiring strategies' for your remote workforce has become instrumental in the realm of cost minimisation across the firm. Not to mention, 'Resources & Functional Outsourcing' strategies that have stood the test of time over any point of the season. Catered to all industry types, you may consider to outsource the entire function or just a few headcounts of a particular function to a qualified and entrusted service provider to handle the repetitive, mundane and non-value adding tasks, easing the burden of your HR team in aspects of recruitment, retention, replacements, trainings, as well as fulfilling the payroll and other statutory compliance obligations. Furthermore, you can re-direct your headcounts to focus on other pipeline and more important business initiatives. 
  5. Establish a structured manner of communication – Speaking of staying connected, a daily call or periodic catchups with your remote team members is essential as a rule of thumb in managing a remote team. The purposes of these calls are to set clear expectations, understand the current work condition of each team member, report on status and progress updates on tasks and deliverables, address the challenges and issues encountered, as well as resolve conflicts in a prompt and timely manner. The crucial features of these calls are that they should be regular and predictable, and more importantly, provide opportunities for team members to ask questions, communicate and express their comments and concerns, as well as assuring them that their questions and concerns will be heard and addressed accordingly. Lastly, companies should try to limit the number of communication channels in order to avoid complications. Please make reference to the next section regarding communication tools.
  6. Communication tools – One of the best things about new technology is its ability to take us to different places in no time. In the world of remote working, email alone is no longer sufficient as remote workers need visual interaction, such as video conferencing, to ease their sense of isolation.  Video conferencing facilities are instrumentally useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal over written or audio-only communications. Common communication platforms to include are WeChat Enterprise and Microsoft Lync, WhatsApp, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Skype for Business. Ultimately, remote working can only be successful if companies have effective digital collaboration and communication tools that are accessible by everyone in the organisation. Nevertheless, it is encouraged that companies should limit the number of communication channels to just a few (say no more than three) or make the preferred ones official channels in order to ensure proper and effective communications amongst the internal team members.
  7. Performance appraisal – Nothing is more important than dictating your expectations to your employees clearly! This will radically reduce the need for any micromanagement. As a guiding tool, the assessment of individual's and team's performances can simply be performed by identifying and including the relevant KPIs, and create the assessment spectrum based on tasks or projects (instead of just an annual appraisal on the overall performance). To manage supervisors' expectations, team members are advised to stick to the deadlines on key deliverables, regularly present their daily or weekly plans, and share work-related challenges and achievements within the group from time-to-time. This is a good way to uplift team spirit and unleash their potentials, which should ultimately lead to an elevation of the team's and even the company's overall performance. 
  8. Working environment - As we remain steadfast during this turbulent time, ensuring a cost effective and safe working environment for your remote workforces is the key to achieve business sustainability. As responsible and caring employers, we have the duty to ensure that our employees are working remotely in an environment (home or shared office) that is suitable from a health and safety perspective. Employers may request their staff to provide a photo of their workspace for review and assessment.  In the event if the environment is considered to be unsuitable, companies should provide subsidies to their employees for renting a workspace that is suitable for them to carry out their day-to-day work.  

With something that will be of interest to everyone, next, we will bring your attention to the key attributes that employers should look for in candidates when they are hiring for a remote workforce. Also, in our upcoming article, we will be sharing our experience and insights on how to implement a flexible, sustainable and affordable resourcing model - a resilient structure that will allow a business to continue to operate smoothly without significant interruptions under unexpected economic and corporate conditions. Please stay tuned!