Managing Telecommuting and Remote Workers

While flexing hours (such as working 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) is the most popular flexible work arrangement (FWA) at Harvard, there is continuing and growing interest in telecommuting and remote work, whether occasional or on a formal basis. Managing people with FWAs requires the same skills as managing people with conventional work arrangements. But managing telecommuters and remote workers does require some extra insight.

Here are some key principles that can help set you up for success.

Manage to goals and results

  • All employees should have clear goals, deliverables, and deadlines for which he or she is accountable, whether or not in your line of sight.
  • As someone begins teleworking, it can be useful if the employee sends you scheduled productivity summaries. Even a few lines noting accomplishments and status against targets can help keep you both on track.

Understand unit-specific approaches

  • No two units are alike. Labs and libraries have different demands from office settings. Think about whether and what approach might work for your unit’s operational needs.
  • There are jobs that cannot be performed from an alternate location (e.g., serving meals, parking cars, in-person customer service, counseling, animal care or patient care, work that involves certain kinds of high-risk confidential information); see the job considerations grid for more information.

Make expectations clear

  • Teleworkers should be reciprocal with their flexibility - that is, willing to come on-site for work-related meetings and events that are scheduled on a day that is otherwise designated as a telework day.
  • All FWAs should address whether and how communications among team members or with customers and stakeholders might change under the proposed arrangement.
  • Except for situations when working from home is a management request, costs for home office set-ups will generally be borne by the employee. They must provide all suitable work tools for a home office, such as high-speed internet, needed equipment, furnishings, etc.

Set the non-negotiable terms of telework

  • Employees must engage only in Harvard work; no other substantive work – such as child care or personal projects — should be conducted during agreed-upon work times.
  • At a minimum, team members should commit to respond to communications from colleagues and clients within the same timeframe as if he or she were on-site, unless otherwise agreed.
  • Employees who telework—even occasionally–must provide and maintain a physically safe workspace that is reasonably free of noise and disruption.
  • Meetings and other in-office activities do not need to be scheduled around a teleworker’s scheduled office presence unless there is a business-related reason. However, conference calls, web-based meetings and screen-sharing may need to be set up in advance.

Check in with colleagues and customers (internal and external)
Regular check-ins with colleagues and customers—beginning in the trial period and at a minimum during the annual performance review—provide important information that may lead to tweaks or more alterations in the FWAs to ensure their success.

Pay attention to team success

  • Ensure transparency about arrangements to protect against misunderstandings or the impression of favoritism or unfair treatment.
  • Strive to maintain the social nuances and spontaneity (sometimes called the “water cooler effect”) that are key to engaged teams. Managers might consider inexpensive webcams for office-based employees to enable geographically separated employees to collaborate via Skype, Facetime or other approved technologies.

Maintain both formal and informal check-ins and communications

  • Make sure you have formal check-in times by scheduling the time.
  • If informal, spontaneous check-ins are a part of your office’s culture, such as saying good morning or stopping by a cubicle to ask how a project is going, those can be translated to instant messages (IMs), which are typically part of videoconferencing software like Skype.
  • Never succumb to the idea that a colleague "shouldn’t be bothered” when teleworking.

Develop communication norms

  • Agree upon one or more approved communication tools (e.g., cell phone, forwarding office line to home telephone, Skype for Business, Harvard email, etc.). Learn more about Harvard’s communication and collaboration tools as well as IT security issues.
  • Examine your own behavior and what it signals to your teams. Do you send emails at late hours? Be clear about your expectations for when employees respond to you—they may feel obligated to check emails regularly when they are not working ‘just in case’. You may prefer to have an after-hours policy that requires a telephone call for something that is time-sensitive, thereby freeing everyone from the "sleeping with your smartphone” phenomenon. Use email tools to schedule a more normal message delivery at the opening of business the next day.

Even with telework, there are times when face-to-face has its place

  • Meetings that require many participants
  • Difficult or complex conversations that would benefit from minimizing the relational gap by closing the physical gap
  • Collective schedule planning around foreseeable changes (vacations, parental leaves, a partner’s surgery)
  • Team celebrations

Additional Considerations for Remote Workers

If your unit deals with or is considering establishing work outside of Massachusetts, please refer to the job considerations grid which provides an overview of factors to consider when evaluating a specific position’s suitability for a FWA.

Policies on Remote Location Establishment and Eligibility for Harvard Payroll and Outsourced Payrolls may also be relevant to your consideration of remote work proposals.

Additional Resources

Harvard’s Business Continuity program provides central tools, templates, an online application, and support to schools and departments as each develops its own Business Continuity program and plan.

Lynda Campus module on Understanding Remote Team Management.