The shift to remote work has given some employees more flexibility than ever on where they meet their deadlines.
A March survey by personal finance website Value Penguin found nearly half of Americans plan to travel more in 2022 than the previous year in light of reduced Covid restrictions. Of the travelers surveyed, 30 percent said they planned to work remotely during one of their trips. And a separate March survey by research firm Qualtrics found 49 percent of U.S. employees do at least one hour of work a day on vacation.
But working from anywhere can have its pitfalls. What happens, for example, when a worker tries to take an important call from a cruise ship, and their wifi cuts out? Or when an employee decides to work from a different country for six weeks and runs into visa issues?
Many business leaders are just starting to untangle these questions. Human resources experts and advisers say firms can avoid such debacles by documenting clear policies regarding remote work in their systems, getting comfortable with work across time zones, and being aware of potential tax and compliance issues that could arise when employees travel.
How firms are giving workers leeway on location
When employers were still figuring out remote work policies during the first months of the pandemic, it was easier for employees to leave their homes without letting their bosses know. As more companies are asking employees to be in the office at least some of the time, though, migrating from San Francisco to Mexico City for six weeks is more difficult to pull off. Michael Griffiths, a partner for Deloitte’s workforce transformation practice, says large-scale organizations are now having “to create some sort of line in the sand” on remote work.
“We went from a ‘no policy, fuzzy policy, I’m not sure what the policy is’ kind of world to ‘we better have a policy and clarity about this,’” says Jack Mardack, co-founder of Oyster HR, which provides global employment software to companies. “And that has meant different things for different companies.”
Some firms have recently adopted hybrid policies that give workers room to travel. This is the case at New York-based marketing platform Conductor, which requires employees to come into the office three days a week, but allows them to work from anywhere two months out of the year (these are known as “YOLO months”).
Firms that are fully remote tend to have an easier time remaining flexible on workers’ location, says Mardack. The transition to a hybrid model “has to be orchestrated very deliberately,” guided by clarity on policy and a vision of what flexibility looks like at the organization.
Be aware of potential pitfalls
When crafting policies that allow for employees to work from anywhere, including on vacation, Griffiths says employers should look carefully at tax and compliance issues that could arise for workers when they leave their place of residence.
“I think a lot of managers are pretty unaware of policies around taking devices internationally,” as well as the tax implications of working in different locations, he says. States and countries have different employment laws that may be triggered when an employee performs work in that location, meaning the employer could be subject to certain minimum wage or tax withholding requirements. Firms that didn’t have clear mandates on location from the start are now working backwards to address such issues, he adds.
Employers who do want to give workers some flexibility on where they work from should consider how to maintain the same level of productivity while being “asynchronous,” a type of work that doesn’t require all staff to be online at the same time, says Mardack. This might mean establishing the expectation that workers won’t receive a response on Slack right away if they’re communicating with a coworker in a time zone after work hours. It also may mean setting the expectation workers take more individual responsibility in coordinating their day. Mardack notes this approach can work well for so-called “knowledge workers” but isn’t necessarily true across industries.
“Organizations should have really clear boundaries about these things,” says Nadia Vatalidis, vice president of people at Remote, a remote employment solutions company. “People in different time zones should be able to know what’s happening.”
Griffiths also says it helps to set clear standards for what constitutes an “appropriate workspace” at your company—and whether a beach without access to videoconferencing technology, for example, actually meets these standards.
Be open to change, and real vacations
Both Mardack and Vatalidis emphasized the importance of adopting a clear policy on remote work that’s well-documented. Oyster and Remote, whose staff can work from anywhere, have published their handbooks online so current and prospective employees understand the firms’ policies on remote work from the start.
Griffiths said companies who are just starting to figure out new policies on work location should be open to changing it if they find productivity or worker satisfaction is compromised. “Do not make this static,” Griffiths and his team often tell clients. “This is a changing world, from worker needs to team dynamics to business values. It needs to be an iterative process.”
Benjamin Granger, who heads the employee experience advisory services team at Qualtrics, recommends firms listen carefully to their workforce to understand what sort of flexibility they value as they craft new policies. Maintaining a careful eye on employee satisfaction, while consistently measuring the impact of remote or hybrid policies on performance, can help ensure productivity while retaining workers.
No matter how flexible your remote work policy is, it’s not a terrible idea to encourage employees to take real vacations when needed. If employees get into the habit of working on every vacation, firms risk seeing high levels of burnout and turnover. The blurring between work and personal life is “one of the potential downsides of remote work we really need to watch carefully,” Granger says. “The onus is on the organization to set the tone for what those norms are.”