The Bounty of a Virtual Workforce: The Latest HR Snafu


With all of the recent increases in mobile technology, the ability for employees to work remotely has greatly increased. Today, there is cloud based software that makes it easy to facilitate virtual meetings, connect to business dashboards, and interact with customers . Because of this, more employers than ever before are instituting virtual job programs. In fact, there are thousands of U.S. companies already using a virtual workforce including full time, part time, and contract or temporary workers who all telecommute. While the model is sound, the practice has also changed the way that we communicate and in doing so, created confusion by raising some very important questions regarding HR issues.


In a company where all people and assets are physically accessible, it is easy to create clear employee boundaries in the workplace. Comfort zones are easy to create in such an atmosphere because the business simply runs using a traditional structure and communication methodology. This also makes it easy to identify what an employee is doing at the workplace and hold that person accountable when they fall short.


The lines are far more blurred for HR when a virtual component is introduced.


Taking disciplinary action against a virtual workforce is often the most daunting task for HR, because they must often become detectives in order to put pieces of a puzzle together that otherwise would have been contained within neat little box inside the office. For instance, one of the biggest HR questions in the mind of employees is whether or not they can be fired by a company who allowed them to work from home before, but has just recently rescinded the offer. With so many virtual employees today, this is a growing issue.


The less complicated answer of this particular question is that the bulk of employees are hired at will, which legally means they can also be fired at will without any notice or reason. If at one point, an employer decides that they will begin allowing employees to work from home or hire a new virtual team, but then have a change of heart later, they can typically exercise the right to fire any employees at will who do not comply to come work in the office. While unfortunately, United States employment law dictates that there is very little protection that covers an employs actual right to conduct their work remotely, even if for those hired under such terms, this does not make the decisions surrounding such issues any less complicated for HR or the ethics of such an action any less arguable.



There are lots of other HR nightmares that are compounded by employees who work from home. Some more examples include the employee’s right to be accommodated in the event of a disability, to report on any legal infractions committed by the employer without fearing retaliation, to work in an environment free of harassment and discrimination, and to hold their employer to a signed contract, which dictates a guarantee of virtual employment.


The real question is, when your corporate office is in one place and your virtual employee is in another (maybe thousands of miles away), how do you really get to the bottom of what is going on in any situation?


To try and discover the answer to this query, HR managers know they have to get involved in virtual employee matters in new and inventive ways, not just to protect the employee, but the company’s interests. However, while the best HR managers are becoming pioneers in trying to find the best new way to deal with old issues in a virtual environment, there are a brand new set of problems that have emerged from the growing work from home trend that have never been around before. In truth, the virtual employee trend is redefining the mold of what it takes to be effective in the realm of HR more and more each year, which of course also makes it seemingly harder to identify the root of any problem.


Here is a good example of this: everyone knows that an employer is typically liable for an injury that occurs at the workplace. However, think about the endless grey area you would be dancing in if an employee got hurt during business hours while working from home. This also applies to long term health concerns such as if an employee develops carpal tunnel over time. Does this make it the company’s fault because the employee is on company time? Is it the employee’s fault because they work using their house, equipment, furniture, etc.? Is everyone at fault? Too many liability questions without a clear answer is enough to make any business owner reconsider going the virtual employee route, despite what can be gained from doing so.


Even greater problems arise regarding overtime for nonexempt employees in a virtual environment. Wage and hour laws require that employers track all hours worked by nonexempt workers so that overtime can be distributed accurately. Because you can’t keep explicit track of virtual employees who work over forty hours, you are forced to take their word. This means they could be participating in activities that are non-work related such as emailing or texting, and then be owed extra pay for it. If you call them out on it, they could sue, rebel, or goof off even more.


Then, there is the issue of privacy limitations. When boundaries are crossed at the work place, it is usually more obvious than in virtual situations, where it often becomes more of a he said/she said argument. Some organizations have gone as far as to make employees agree to have their computers and phones monitored while they are on the job to avoid any legal disputes. But of course, no one wants to be a 24 hour a day babysitter either. That would defeat the purpose of trusting working class adults to do their jobs the right way in the first place, whether at the office or at home.


This seems like an inescapable nightmare, but better communication can help to quell the problems for even the most stressed out HR team!


The answer is so simple and obvious, it could hit you in the face, yet it’s so easy to miss the important role that communication plays in an HR environment as it relates to virtual employees when there are so many other issues to deal with. Fortunately, the greatest truth is that if you function as an HR manager, every single problem that comes your way is the result of someone’s inability to communicate. Every one, I guarantee it!


Simply put, communication drives all the wheels of commerce and that doesn’t change when a few of them are virtual wheels. If an employee is not performing at the same capacity virtually as would be in the office, there is likely a communication misfire to blame. If that employee is just lazy or abusing their virtual status and is not being dealt with properly, there is another (completely different) communication misfire at fault. By learning how to adapt a different communication style that uses the same tools and lingo that virtual employees use, HR managers will find it much easier to reach out remote staffers in ways that are far more impactful. By setting clear rules and standards in the first place, boundaries can be created for these employees so that it is easier for them to focus on their jobs and easier for HR to handle problems without falling into any grey areas (at least within the realm of the company’s standards).


It takes strong communicators on the HR team to be able to appreciate and work through all of the concerns involved in a work from home environment. By understanding that every interaction starts with a conversation, it becomes far easier to identify breakdowns so that they can be rectified. In doing so, both employee and employer can have their concerns satisfied. With the right credo, there will be fewer issues at hand.