Written by Roberto Calderon and Paul Eder

With the onset COVID-19, many organizations have had to reorganize and rethink what they value and how they get working tasks completed. Organizations took immediate, but necessarily strategic, action to comply with federal guidelines and state mandates while still promoting the continuity of work. As a part of the overall response, organizations have had to accommodate the workforce with large-scale telework initiatives.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defines telework in the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 as a work flexibility arrangement under which an employee performs the duties and responsibilities of such employee’s position, and other authorized activities, from an approved worksite other than the location form which the employee would otherwise work. Telework involves the use of phone and internet for communicating with other coworkers, sharing documentation and data, and performing work tasks as they would be performed at a physical workplace.

employee collecting and analyzing data based on QSIE standardsTelework is not unique to COVID 19. In fact, certain job functions and even entire industries rely on employees teleworking full time. Some examples of job functions with tasks that are able to be completed fully by teleworking are management consulting, software development, data management and analysis, education (through online/virtual instruction), and even finance and accounting (given access to all needed networks and documentation).

Since teleworking is becoming a common practice in certain industries, either to accommodate employees’ personal needs or to save facilities, utilities, and commuting costs (for both the company and the employee), it has already been studied widely in academia. Over the past several years, many organizations have captured some telework best practices in order to ensure its effectiveness and efficiency.


The following are some human capital challenges that teleworking organizations must strive to overcome:

1. Preserving the organization’s culture.

Organizational culture includes the experiences, philosophy, principles, values, and agreed expected behaviors. Even though an organization’s core values and practices may be written or documented by the organization, some interaction and shared experience is needed to set those values into action. When teleworking, physical presence is removed and usually all communications becomes written or virtual. It is difficult to preserve a visible culture when workers are off site. With new teleworking procedures in place, organizations must emphasize how to apply shared values to the ‘new normal’ practice, and how such culture can be seen, measured, and practiced in written, virtual, or phone call interactions.

2. Maintaining high levels of employee engagement.

According to a research report written by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), HR practitioners across different industries reported that  keeping employees engaged is the top, current pressing challenge – with 38% of the respondents reporting so. This challenge is complex to overcome due to differences in organization’s mission, core values, organizational culture, and employees’ individual characteristics. Teleworks imposes a new level of complexity, by making it harder to define, track, and measure an acceptable level of employee engagement. Some actions suggested in the SHRM report include exploring greater transparency on overall corporate communications; increasing alignment of engagement activities to organizational goals and strategy; and focusing on business priorities, with the objective of simplifying work and increasing satisfaction to drive organizational performance.

3. Re-defining on-boarding practices that require physical interaction.

For some jobs, the recruitment and selection process involves many practices that full-time telework make more difficult (but not impossible), such as reviewing applications, providing valid assessments, and interviewing potential candidates. Nonetheless, there are certain requirements when a candidate arrives that are hindered almost completely by forced telework – such as drug testing or obtaining an ID badge to access an organization’s network. With the threat of COVID-19, these requirements are more difficult to complete due to fear of physical contact and not having the tools to conduct the processes remotely. Organizations need to rethink how on-site requirements align to the overall strategy and develop alternatives to ensure that vital aspects of on-boarding are still carried out efficiently

4. Managing performance for teleworkers.

Performance management processes and models vary from organization to organization. Proper performance management can result in direct financial gain, motivate and develop the current workforce, reward high performers, aid workforce and succession planning, identify skill gaps, and determine eligible benefits. When telework is added to the mix, employees must establish goals and show outcomes differently than when work is not performed remotely.

The Human Resource Certification Institute (HRCI) provides tips that could assist with managing the performance of teleworking employees, which includes:

Two men sharing an idea

  • Innovative performance management process.
    Teams and individuals should perceive their performance management process as streamlined and clear. Leaders should look for ways to improve performance through creative coaching and development.
  • Rewarding behaviors, not only results.
    Leaders should focus not only on the results expected, but also on the behaviors expected to sustain the organization through telework. Results are certainly important, but when reviewing performance progress, behaviors that lead to the completion of an outcome or have a positive impact within the project or tasks should also be rewarded. Doing so should have a positive impact and serve as a motivational vehicle for high performers as well as emphasizing such behaviors to the rest of the workforce.
  • Creating and agreeing to performance goals.
    Employee must set concrete goals, which may be aligned with SMART criteria (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based). These goals should be approved by management.

5. Flexibility while teleworking.  
The SHRM research report also addresses the issue of flexibility while teleworking. Teleworking employees sometimes find it hard to cope with personal responsibilities and work duties. In the SHRM research report, employees in the United States reported not having enough time for themselves (60%), for their significant others (63%), and for their children (75%). Within the same study it was found that the most important factors in balancing work and life involved opportunities for learning, autonomy, management support, a culture of trust, and job satisfaction. Considering these factors, organizations can work with employees to ensure these characteristics of work-life balance are maintained through flexible deadlines. It is important for leaders to evaluate job functions and determine the degree of flexibility allowed for approaching work and producing outputs.

6. Closing skill gaps.
Improving workforce skills is an important human capital issue whether employees telework or not. Nonetheless, skill gaps may be exacerbated by the use of new technology, changes to work tasks, and the overall disruption that forced telework brings. In addition, telework may make it harder for organizations to assess current skills. Organizations must responsibly examine their current capabilities, organizational charts, and their workforce skills to identify emerging gaps. Organizations should look for opportunities to reskill and upskill. Upskilling refers to the process of learning new skills or teaching the workforce new skills. Reskilling is the process of learning new skills to do a different job or training the workforce for a different job. Both practices can lead to increased effectiveness and save costs. While teleworking, many online options for certifications, degrees, informal training, and courses are available. Organization should analyze these options to provide the most cost-effective upskilling and reskilling needed for their workforce. Long-term effects on investing on human capital and building workforce loyalty can translate into lower turnover rates and cost- savings.

7. Creating telework policies
A workforce may initially resist the creation of new policies that are needed in a forced telework environment. To mitigate this resistance, SHRM has provided a list of best practices that an guide the design of telework policies:

  • Involving the team in the creation of a policy
  • Promoting teamwork
  • Maintaining a virtual presence (instant messaging/video conferencing)
  • Providing IT support (available, effective, and efficient)
  • Demonstrating trust and avoiding micromanagement
  • Finding ways to get together virtually
  • Establishing performance indicators and measuring performance
  • Reviewing opportunities for development

Telework challenges are not new. But the environment of forced telework driven by COVID-19 is. This presents new obstacles for organizations to overcome. Luckily, good human capital practices outlined over the past several years are the perfect antidote for an organization looking to overcome these challenges and continue its path towards success.