The Role of HR in Remote Working (updated 2024)

HR's role in remote working

In 2020 Covid brought about the largest scale migration to remote working the world has ever seen. Working practices may have changed forever. It’s clear that we must prepare for a more flexible approach exemplified by a rise in remote or hybrid working.

Flexible working is an increasingly popular model as it gives employees more freedom over where- and sometimes when- they choose to work and in general offers a greater work-life balance. This often improves productivity and efficiency. 

But being remote and away from a team can also feel isolating and in a blurred work/home environment. As a result, it can lead to burnout and stress as people never get the break from the work devices they need to really switch off.

The Challenge

This presents HR teams with a relatively new challenge of maintaining engagement and productivity whilst ensuring the well-being of its remote workforce. 

Without precedent, so few employee handbooks had effective working from home policies. Everyone is familiar with an IT misuse policy; ‘don’t do anything illegal or inappropriate on a computer your employer gives you’ is pretty standard fare. But, by now businesses should have implemented policies that reflect their new hybrid or remote working practices. 

But, does everyone know what to do if they are having problems? Or, if issues arise, what the escalation process is?

In a digital-led hybrid or remote working world the role of HR has changed. As the landscape has shifted away from physical work places to remote and virtual meet ups, HR support has evolved too. 

The HR challenges of engaging a remote working workforce:

No daily contact

Where people are not been in their offices for a long period of time, or businesses have experienced a high degree of staff turnover – from both leavers and recruits – some teams that have been working together for more than 12 months may never have met in person. Without sharing a work space, they’ve had to develop relationships, create a team dynamic and build the trust bonds required by a high performing team without having the necessary physical interaction people normally expect. 

As teams grow, it presents further challenges; smaller teams, by necessity, will communicate more regularly as shared goals- and often shared responsibilities- mean a high degree of collaboration.  But in larger teams, with more defined hierarchies, it can be harder for someone – particularly a new recruit -to know where to go or who to turn to with an HR issue.

If no one knows how to report a problem, how will HR even know there is one?

Communication blocks

While remote employees can still receive messages, it’s difficult to know if these messages actual get through. You can’t expect your remote employees to buy into a culture they can’t feel, or a wellbeing programme they don’t know about. Culture is a huge part of any employee experience and for HR teams, communicating and promoting a mission, vision and values is also more difficult when employees work remotely.

Gathering feedback

Without regular employee temperature checks, gathering feedback on the mood, thoughts and general wellbeing of a remote team is much harder. A lack of anecdotal feedback from coffee-break or watercooler chats further compounds the challenge. You can’t guarantee that employees will complete large surveys, but also a change in working pattern may be a proactive choice and not a cry for help. 

HR Apprenticeships can support a remote working workforce

City Skills Tutor Jim Blythe explains how HR apprenticeships, can support the new way of working for HR teams. 

“It is clear that HR support and resourcing needs have changed for a remote workforce. Whereas workers were perhaps more inclined to knock on a door in the office, it can be harder for a remote team to seek support. Also, if HR was one hundred percent, office-based they got a feel for the overall mood and general organisational climate with informal temperature checks. Things like organisational cultures are now much harder to gauge.”

Changing role

 “Like many functions, by necessity, the role of HR has become more formalised; you don’t get the informal lunch chats, you don’t just bump into people anymore. So in order to check in, we book time with people and it tends to be more formal. 

This can have advantages and disadvantages. In larger organisations the role of HR business partner – where an HR specialist is assigned to another department or function- is prevalent. They’re an HR person, but they are also part of the business unit they are aligned to. This often used to lead to split loyalties if HR had to do something that was unpopular in that part of the business. By creating a professional – and physical- distance to that relationship it might make certain decisions easier, but then on the minus side, of course, we start to lose some of the relationships we rely on.”

Working virtually – together 

“Remote working brings challenges on both sides of the business, but the way apprenticeships are delivered helps to reinforce some of the ways of working that can be implemented when working virtually together.”

“City Skills has created a completely virtual delivery model where apprentices are coached remotely. Apprentices are set tasks which they complete individually and on many occasions remotely as they themselves aren’t in the office. This model of interaction encourages apprentices to have a range of conversations with people virtually they might not otherwise have.  By learning to work in a remote manner the side effect is that it becomes a lot more normal to have the necessary conversations and seek alternative methods to do all the things HR teams still need to do but using technology to do it remotely.”

Five responsibilities HR must take on in the world of the remote workforce:

  1. Expanded Search & Recruitment
  2. Virtual Onboarding
  3. Digital Engagement
  4. Facilitating Communication
  5. Strategic Leadership

FAQ

Q: What is remote work?
A: Remote work is also known as telecommuting or work-from-home. It is a work arrangement that allows employees to perform their job duties from outside the traditional office environment. This setup leverages technology. For example, the internet, communication tools and digital platforms—to enable workers to complete tasks, collaborate with teams and communicate with clients from anywhere in the world. Remote work can be fully remote, where an employee works outside the office all the time. Or, part of a hybrid model, which combines remote work with some days spent in the office. This approach offers flexibility. It can improve work-life balance and has been increasingly adopted across various industries. Thus is due to advancements in technology and shifts in workplace culture.

Q: What is hybrid work?
A: Hybrid work is a flexible work model. It allows employees to split their time between working in an office and working remotely. This approach aims to combine the benefits of both settings. Offering employees the flexibility to choose where they work based on their needs and the tasks at hand. Hybrid work models are tailored to fit organizational goals and employee preferences, balancing productivity with well-being.

Q: How can HR support employee well-being in a remote work setting?
A: HR can support well-being by implementing virtual wellness programs. Offering flexible work schedules, and facilitating access to mental health resources. Regular check-ins and surveys can also help HR gauge employee well-being and address concerns proactively.

Q: What strategies can HR use to maintain a strong company culture remotely?
A: HR can maintain company culture by organising virtual team. Building activities, promoting open communication channels and ensuring core values are integrated into all aspects of remote work. Celebrating achievements and milestones virtually can also reinforce a sense of community.

Q: How does HR handle recruitment and onboarding for remote positions?
A: For remote positions, HR should leverage digital tools. For example for recruitment and createing a virtual onboarding experience that’s engaging and informative. This includes virtual tours, online training sessions, and digital meet-and-greets with team members.

Q: Can HR address the challenges of managing a globally dispersed team?
A: Yes, by implementing clear communication protocols, accommodating different time zones, and fostering an inclusive environment that respects cultural differences. Regular team meetings and one-on-one check-ins can help keep globally dispersed teams aligned and connected.

Q: What role does technology play in remote HR management?
A: Technology is crucial for facilitating remote work, from recruitment and onboarding platforms to productivity and collaboration tools. HR can leverage technology to streamline processes, enhance communication, and support employees effectively in a remote setting.