Five years before the pandemic upended the office as a universally recognized place of business, Jill Duffy was working from home, wherever she was. Duffy is a journalist and has worked virtually in a multitude of time zones, including the UK, India, Guatemala and New York, and she is now harnessing her wealth of experience as a traveling writer with a new book, The Complete Guide to Remote Work: The ultimate resource for remote employees, hybrid workers, and digital nomads.
HR Brew recently spoke with Duffy about what HR leaders can do to ensure hybrid and remote setups are as successful as possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So, big question: Why did you decide to write this book? One of the things I would like to point out to people is that there are many different ways to work remotely. And being in the pandemic isn’t the first way, and being hybrid because of the pandemic isn’t the first time people were hybrid either. We have plenty of stories of people choosing to work from home when they need to, for productivity, childcare, and their own health. A big part of what motivated me to get interested in the subject was to think about how [remote work] works and see other people doing it. I had colleagues in 2001, 2002 who were distant, and there just didn’t seem to be a reason why we couldn’t make it work. So more recently I’ve been remote full time since about 2015. My partner has a job that moves us around a lot. And I said, “I kind of want this to work for me, so let’s do it.”
Given the kind of widespread remote work pandemic, what do you think is the broader lesson for HR leaders as we come to terms with this new reality? In this particular case of thinking about remote work, we should have relied a bit more on disaster preparedness plans. If we all had to go remote, what would that look like? Do people have a clear understanding of how to do this? Do they know the materials they need? Do they have contact details?
So, going forward, HR managers should definitely be involved in the process of integrating disaster preparedness into their idea of dealing with pandemic situations. Other than that, what they can do now, in the future, is start saying, “What are we doing to make remote work work?” And that may require tearing down a lot of the assumptions they have about how business worked and how the organizational culture worked.
And part of that comes from HR, part of it really empowering people to make choices for themselves… by developing a culture where people feel they can speak up about what they need to. Do they need fewer meetings? Do they need more social connection? Do they need fewer social connections? Do they need flexibility to get their work done in a time frame that works for them? For many working parents and caregivers, for example, a nine-to-five schedule just doesn’t work. They have to do things during the day. And they like the flexibility of saying, “from noon to two, I have to take care of my family, and I’ll make up those hours later in the day.”
HR is tough. HR news doesn’t have to be.
HR Brew keeps you efficient in a fast-paced business environment.
Why do you think some companies are really resistant to remote work? We must be careful to consider everything [companies’] Needs. Some industries and government organizations have many security risks. And creating home environments where people can access sensitive information is tricky.
Other than that, if there are people who can do their work from home and they’re asked not to – and they feel pressured to come into the office – I think that’s a big part rooted in an old business idea. Especially in banking, which has a very bad history of overwork and a tradition of hazing young people. And if leaders still believe that’s the secret sauce that makes them tick, I don’t know, I think they might have some rough awakenings, and they need to be more flexible. They need to start thinking [their goals] and how to achieve it [them].
There are many people who want to be back in an office and feel energized by being around other people. So it’s very important to open those lines of communication, to make sure that those lines of communication also put people in a safe place so they can really express themselves. You can use anonymous polls for this stuff. But you really have to ask people, what do they want? How do they think they do their job best?
What do you think of the concept of remote work as a common long-term model? How will long-term remote work change how businesses operate? Something I talk about in the book is how companies that have always been remote are very generous with their benefits. And there are several reasons for this. One is especially with hard-to-fill jobs, like engineers and programmers, it’s very difficult to get them on board. Salaries are competitive, holidays are competitive. You really have to attract that talent and you want it to stay. The way they do this is by creating super generous benefit packages, bonuses and signing bonuses.
Unlimited PTO is another way to do it. I feel a bit mixed about this because there are ways to pressure people into not taking all of their PTO. What I often tell people to ask HR when they’re interviewing is, if there’s an unlimited PTO policy, what’s the average number of days people take? This is something that people should…get straight answers to, and HR should take the time to type in those numbers and be sure.