Employee handbook considerations for remote employees
Remote work has been growing in popularity for the last decade, but the pandemic accelerated that growth tremendously. With many companies choosing to remain permanently remote, it is worth considering how to adapt your company policies and employee handbook to reflect the new normal.
Building an employee handbook is a time-intensive and complex process. These handbooks tend to be quite long and filled with detailed policies covering just about anything that a new employee could want to know. Adapting a company handbook for remote employees goes beyond simply adding a remote work policy as there are often additional considerations related to legal differences based on the employee’s home residence and operational differences that require policy clarification.
To learn more about what to include in your handbook and special considerations for remote workforces, keep reading. We’ve also included links to policy templates and policy resources to help streamline your handbook writing process.
The importance of having a thorough employee handbook for remote employees
Employee handbooks hold a ton of incredibly important information about your company, including key company policies. Employee handbooks are an essential onboarding tool to help new hires familiarize themselves with company policies. They also act as an easily-accessible reference point for current employees who may want to double-check the written policies before requesting leave or submitting a harassment complaint to human resources. These handbooks are even more important for those in remote jobs.
Remote work comes with a ton of benefits such as better work-life balance for employees and decreased costs associated with office space for employers. However, having a remote workforce also requires employers to be incredibly clear about their expectations and policies. Employees won’t have a manager present in person throughout the day who can observe them to make sure that all policies and procedures are being followed.
The increased flexibility around the work environment and work hours also requires detailed documentation and communication to ensure that employees are working the correct hours as expected by the employer. Many remote companies don’t mind juggling different start times to accommodate different preferences or time zones. Some may even be fine with employees regularly taking long lunches or extra breaks for a mid-day workout class or Target trip as long as the hours are made up. However, there do need to be in-depth policies in place so that everyone understands what is acceptable and to ensure that flexibility is not abused.
What to include in an employee handbook
There are some key components that all employers should include in an employee handbook whether their staff work on-site, remote, or hybrid.
Employees typically receive a copy of the employee handbook on their first day of work as part of the onboarding process. As such, it makes sense to start things off with a welcome statement. This statement includes a general welcome, emphasizes how pleased the company is that the new team member is joining them (this is typically not personalized), and a brief overview of the company. Employers may touch on the company’s history and purpose.
Opening the employee handbook with a welcome statement is a great way to ease new hires into the large handbook. It also adds a bit of a personal touch, especially when the CEO or founder writes and signs the statement. This is nice for remote team members as it can feel a bit more difficult to connect with a new employer’s workplace culture, leadership, and key staff early on without the standard office tour and introductions that many in-person new hires get on their first day.
At-will employment disclaimer
If your business operates in at-will states, it is common to include an at-will employment disclaimer toward the beginning of the employee handbook. At-will employment means that both the employer and employee have the right to end the employment relationship at any time without notice or cause. This disclaimer ensures that employees understand their status as at-will workers.
Mission and values
Some information on the company’s mission and values is also helpful to include. The mission statement should briefly explain the purpose of the company. What does the company hope to accomplish? How is this particular business providing something special or beneficial to its customers or society?
Then it can include a little bit about how the company plans to serve that purpose, who the company is meant to serve, and any other key values or commitments held by the company. This sounds like a lot, but most mission statements are relatively short, so try to provide a high-level overview in no more than a paragraph.
Along with the mission statement, you can include a list of your company’s core values. These company values are the guiding principles that govern your company’s culture and operations and can help new hires better understand the organization. Values are generally a list of short phrases such as “customer first” or “integrity” that succinctly describe the values held by the company and its employees.
Employee code of conduct
The code of conduct sets expectations for the manner in which employees should behave and interact with one another. This section often emphasizes treating other employees, clients, and company property with respect. It may touch on topics expanded upon later in the handbook such as anti-harassment policies, professional appearance expectations, attendance, and legal compliance.
Timekeeping and payment procedures
It’s helpful to provide an overview of payment and timekeeping procedures. When employing remote workers, employers must be very clear on their timekeeping and reporting expectations. While most employees will be relatively honest and trustworthy, remote work does provide an increased opportunity for timecard fraud.
Break and mealtime policies must also be followed by remote workers. If you have employees across different states, they may be subject to different laws regarding breaks. Many employers choose to write out their main policy to comply with federal law and add state-specific addendums as needed.
The employee benefits section of an employee handbook provides an overview of the benefits offerings and policies. Provide an overview of the types of benefits and other perks offered along with eligibility requirements for health insurance benefits and retirement plans. Consider addressing things like waiting periods and which employees are eligible for benefits (are all benefits exclusive to full-time employees?). It’s best to stick to more general information that will apply to all employees here and save the specific plan details for your open enrollment paperwork, especially when you have a large number of remote employees as specific plan offerings may vary based on location.
Confidentiality and data security
Confidentiality agreements or policies are often included in an employee handbook, though they may frequently require a separate acknowledgment from the employee to verify that they have read and will abide by the policy. The purpose of the confidentiality section is to ensure that the employee will keep customer, employee, or company data confidential. This is particularly relevant for remote companies as employees will access sensitive information from their homes, coffee shops, and possibly personal devices rather than in a secure office setting. That means it’s incredibly important for them to understand their duty to keep documents and data confidential.
This section can also address what happens to any company devices or data upon termination of employment. If company devices are issued, include a section that they must be returned within a certain number of days from the employee’s last day. If personal devices are being used, employers can set expectations for the deletion of company data upon termination.
The bulk of your employee handbook should consist of clear, written company policies. These may include a social media policy, travel policies, device policies, PTO policies, and other key items. The core policies that apply to on-site workers also generally belong in a remote employee handbook, so if you have an existing employee handbook you can adapt your existing policies.
Special considerations when building an employee handbook for remote employees
An employee handbook for remote employees will have all of the components of a normal in-person employee handbook, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind while drafting policies for a remote employee handbook.
State and local laws
Remote employers often have employees spread out across many different states and localities. This can make it challenging to stay on top of all of the legal differences in each area and to integrate those into the employee handbook.
When building an employee handbook, remote employers should take a look at what states or major cities they employ people in. It’s generally not practical to write 50 versions of each employee policy in your handbook, but it’s a good idea to look at where you have a considerable employee presence and consider which states or cities it may be worth making different versions of the handbook or select policies for. California and New York are two states that tend to have very strong employment laws that employers will want to watch out for.
Many in-person or hybrid employers include a device policy in their handbook, but this policy is particularly pertinent to remote employees. Regardless of whether your business issues devices like work computers to all employees or asks that they use their own, it’s imperative that there is a clear device policy in place. Are there limitations on what an employee may do with their work laptop (ie. do they need permission to install new software, can they use it to listen to music/podcasts while working or handle a quick personal Google search during their break, etc)?
Also be sure to double-check if you employ anyone in states like California, Montana, or Illinois that have specific laws regarding Bring-Your-Own-Device reimbursement. If you’re asking employees to be available by phone or email outside of work hours on their personal phones, or asking them to use personal laptops and Wi-Fi, you may need to provide some reimbursement or compensation for this.
Flexible work arrangements
Remote employers need to decide how they will handle scheduling and work hours. If your business hires across different time zones, it’s a good idea to offer some flexibility in work hours where possible so that employees don’t end up working super early or super late due to time differences. Detail the process for requesting a flexible work arrangement or work schedule change.
Leave and PTO policies
Most employers also include their PTO policy in the employee handbook. This policy should include key details about how paid time off is accrued and the procedure for requesting time off. One thing to remember when building this policy for a remote employee handbook is that sick leave and PTO laws can vary by city and state. Some cities like San Francisco have laws requiring employers to provide a minimum number of sick leave days to each employee.
There are also a large number of federal leave types such as FMLA leave that should be addressed in your employee handbook. It’s also a good idea to double-check any state-specific leave types.
For in-person work, there are typically in-depth dress codes and grooming policies listed in the handbook. With remote employees, you’ll likely only see a portion of their shirt rather than a full outfit, so it’s alright to keep it simple on the dress code, but it can be helpful to have a short paragraph detailing what clothing is not appropriate for virtual meetings such as revealing tops or shirts with profane or offensive wording or imagery. Is it ok to wear a t-shirt for an internal team meeting or should employees dress in more traditional business clothing?
Client-facing departments may want to create their own departmental dress codes that cover expectations for client meetings. These don’t need to be added to the handbook but can include things such as wearing more formal attire for client meetings and ensuring that their home workspace is organized and presentable if visible on camera.