With an estimated 36.2 million Americans working remotely by 2025, working from home has become the new norm. Although remote work has its benefits, it also diminishes open lines of communication between employers and employees, leading to issues in the workplace that go unacknowledged as a consequence of a dispersed workforce.
Cyberbullying, harassment, and discrimination continue online and become more insidious, with a recent poll indicating that 38% of employees have experienced harassment through email, video, phone, or online chat.
Whether at home or the office, employees need to feel comfortable reporting misconduct to HR or supervisors, but only 50% of employees report harassment, and 34% of employees have left a job due to unresolved harassment concerns.
Reporting the Issues
Preventing these challenges should be a top priority for employers, as high turnover and workplace misconduct can ruin any business, large or small. To encourage employees to report misconduct, employers should implement a system that allows employees to anonymously report any issues and enable employers to address issues at the first sign of trouble.
One of the first steps in effectively combating issues in the remote workplace is developing an employee reporting policy. Encouraging employees to proactively report meaningful issues puts the power back into their hands and provides employees with tangible steps for handling issues with coworkers in the absence of oversight. Employers have an opportunity to provide more direct and specific guidance and example of what should be reported and this needs to go beyond annual training.
The greatest challenge with a remote workplace is that the traditional rules regarding employee conduct no longer apply. Making the transition to working from home can blur the lines for employee expectations and behavior, especially in the less-formal environment cultivated by this new shift away from the office. Along these same lines, employee conduct with coworkers can veer into the realm of inappropriate, and the privacy of Zoom calls and chat rooms can allow inappropriate behavior to go on unhindered.
Typical company harassment policies draw hard lines around inappropriate physical contact or unwanted attention, but in the remote workplace, these distinctions no longer apply, and employers need to be cognizant of this gap and proactively address it. A peer-reporting policy needs to be coupled with a clear explanation of the company’s employee expectations related to working from home. Employers need to make sure employees know that any discomfort should not be tolerated and that reporting their concerns will result in immediate action.
Building a Policy That Works
To make this policy truly actionable, employers need to provide employees with a peer reporting portal; because legacy hotlines are outdated and ineffective. Employees are unlikely to adhere to these policies or feel comfortable participating without a user-friendly reporting platform, so enabling employees to record any issues or complaints is key. This system must ensure accountability that reports get to the right level of leadership in a timely manner and with consistency to eliminate bias and favoritism.
Employees may not be comfortable reporting issues to HR, especially if their complaint involves a supervisor or a member of the senior management, which is why it is essential to make this process anonymous. Not only does this take the pressure off an employee on the reporting end, but it also allows HR to deal with the issue privately and only alert those necessary to complete an investigation of the behavior.
The final element essential to any plan to prevent misconduct among a remote workforce is to communicate the policy’s intentions. Employees are far more likely to engage with and support a remote misconduct prevention policy if they understand that the ultimate goal is to keep them safe, so employers must communicate that message clearly and often.
This is especially important for employees who may have been onboarded remotely, with no exposure to the office environment or familiarity with previous company policies. Setting these expectations and explaining their importance from the beginning will help ensure that they can build a healthy working relationship with coworkers and are aware that any inappropriate behavior is not acceptable and should be brought to the attention of HR immediately.
A New Frontier
Cultivating a remote workforce has enabled employers to increase productivity and enjoy the benefits of an extended their talent pool, but it has not been without its challenges. Employees working from home have had to renegotiate boundaries and professional expectations, and the lack of visibility into their day-to-day activities has allowed toxic behaviors, such as harassment and bullying, to transition online, where it is harder to track or intervene.
To counter this potential for misconduct within a remote workforce, employers should create a policy for peer reporting, arm employees with an anonymous portal to express their concerns and emphasize the reasoning behind the policy clearly and often. Remote work opportunities have expanded the capacity for success across many industries, and by proactively combating the consequences of a remote environment, employers can simultaneously reap the rewards and keep employees safe.