Managing a Dispersed Workforce
By Simone Putnam, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Partner-in-Charge, Managed Human Resources Services
The workforce today looks remarkably different than it did two-plus years ago. Back then, most employees worked in an office environment with their colleagues, most of whom worked the same work hours. Employees developed professional relationships through in-person collaboration and new team members received one-on-one, in-person support to help them acclimate to their new job responsibilities, bond with their team, and establish a sense of belonging in their new organization. In addition, most employees lived within a reasonable commuting distance of the office.
In contrast, today’s work environment is dominated by organizations that are fully virtual for the long-term or are developing a hybrid approach (meaning employees are in-office some days and remote others). Employees may not necessarily work the same hours as their colleagues, team members may never meet in person, and employees may be located far from the office.
A dispersed workforce presents both benefits and challenges. Benefits include a larger candidate pool from which to recruit and higher morale among team members who prefer to work remotely. Challenges include training managers on effectively managing dispersed teams, lower morale among team members who thrive in the office environment, and compliance issues that result from employing team members across various states. How do leaders set their organizations up for success in a dispersed environment? Establishing clear expectations is one key component — especially since certain expectations may be different now than they were before the pandemic. Examples include working hours, work presence (expectations around “showing up” in virtual meetings and when to show up for in-person meetings), team member availability, manager oversight, and schedule flexibility (for both the organization and its employees).
Another key component for success is compliance. Human Resource employment laws are governed at the federal, state, and local levels. Laws regarding mandatory paid leave, mandatory job-protected leave, disability benefits, workers’ compensation, pay frequency, final pay, etc., vary by state. In the past, organizations were often tasked with understanding and complying with employment laws in a handful of states. With a dispersed workforce, many companies have to understand and comply with those laws in far more states.
As a result, organizations are faced with several key policy decisions:
- Will you allow employees to work from any state, or will you set parameters on where employees can work?
- Will you adjust pay to account for wage differentials among the various states?
- How will you handle paid leave policies if an employee moves to a state that requires more leave than you offer currently? Will you have different policies for different employees, or will you adjust your master policy for all employees?
- How will you ensure appropriate computer security is in place to protect your organization’s data and any client/constituent data you may obtain?
Outside of setting policies around employment laws and practices, it’s important to determine the people management strategies that will help you be successful in a dispersed workforce. For example, fostering a sense of belonging is key to retaining talent. What makes your employees feel connected to the organization, its mission, and their colleagues? Conduct a climate survey of your workforce to understand which elements of the job/workplace environment offer the greatest satisfaction. Challenge employees to suggest ways to better connect with the team and the organization. Revisit job responsibilities: In addition to changing “how we work,” does the dispersed workforce also change the responsibilities of any individual positions?
What about behavioral expectations? Hold team members accountable to core business hours, dress code, availability, communications, etc. Conduct anti-harassment training and explain how a dispersed workforce adds risks for the organization. Help younger workers establish workplace behaviors that allow the greatest opportunities for success. In a dispersed workforce, younger workers are challenged to take greater ownership and accountability for their growth and development. Create mentoring and learning opportunities for younger workers. The organization’s success depends (in part) on a strong succession plan. How do you develop younger talent to be future leaders?
In light of what has been termed the Great Resignation, how do you retain your top talent? Ensure you are paying a competitive wage by conducting a compensation benchmarking study. Invest in your employees outside of compensation. Use your climate survey to understand what matters to your employees. Develop your team members and promote from within whenever possible. If you see opportunities for your top talent to advance within your organization, communicate and work with your top talent to develop a plan to advance their career.
Most importantly, leaders should remain flexible and adaptable in light of the continually changing workforce so that they are creating a supportive environment where employees enthusiastically show up to contribute their best each day.