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Softline experience

A company and remote work: the HR perspective


How does telecommuting affect HR management? Are remote work arrangements a blessing, or do they kill productivity? Should we control or trust our employees? We have discussed these and other concerns with Natalia Likhodievskaya, the Chief Human Resource Officer of Softline Group.

- In the spring of 2020, all of us suddenly had to go through a sweeping transition to remote work. In this context, what were the issues that needed immediate attention from the HR Department?

- The pandemic came out of the blue for everybody, including Softline. Fortunately, remote work had always been part of our daily operations. At least 80% of staff could opt for working from home when needed even before the advent of Covid-19. So, our complete transition to telecommuting happened virtually overnight. The IT department was addressing technical problems fast, and we experienced hardly any disruptions. 

On the other hand, in a situation when every single employee has to interact with colleagues solely online, we had to address issues related to corporate culture, informal communication, and the promotion of company values. We had to find ways to unite our workers and keep their spirits high. 

Weekly town hall meetings on Fridays have become a good solution. At a video conference for all employees, the management talks about important business developments and current company news, paying much attention to the hardships of the quarantine. They encourage employees and show them how to better manage their time by example. This practice has really consolidated our team, even more so than before the pandemic.

I also think that the fast transition to Microsoft Teams has been quite a game-changer. This platform has a wealth of convenient features for online collaboration and communication, and it does help foster the team spirit at formal and informal meetings alike. 

- How has self-isolation changed HR workflows?

- The core HR responsibilities include personnel administration, recruitment and onboarding, training and development, corporate culture, compensation and benefits, and motivation. I believe our performance in all these areas did not suffer during the time of isolation. In some cases, we had to modify our work, like with the above-mentioned new methods of supporting our corporate culture. 

Training and development also had to be transformed. While in-person training and online learning used to co-exist on a 50/50 basis, during the pandemic we had to switch to online classes completely. In fact, this move turned out to have many benefits for the company. So, once the quarantine measures are over, an abrupt return to the old system seems unlikely. I guess we will continue focusing on online education and training.

- What about remote recruitment and onboarding practices at the moment?

- Recruitment and onboarding have also changed dramatically. Previously, we conducted all job interviews in person, but the pandemic has forced us to rely entirely on the Internet. And more often than not, an applicant would go through all the hiring procedures without ever showing up on the premises until the first day of work. 

The revamping of onboarding procedures at Softline started from the top down. Our head of recruitment and adaptation division hired at the very beginning of the pandemic was one of the first employees to go through remote onboarding. She had to get familiar with the company and its employees remotely and learn the work processes likewise. Overall, everything went pretty well, and several potential pitfalls were detected and promptly addressed.  

We have been increasingly counting on the automation of onboarding processes lately. At the moment, for instance, we are developing an electronic separation clearance form to spare employees from wasting their time on collecting signatures from various companies.  

In my opinion, however, the lack of live communication and physical presence at the office certainly slows down the onboarding process. Face-to-face contacts give newcomers a better chance to get an idea of the company as a whole. It should also be kept in mind that remote onboarding takes a longer time. 

- The productivity of remote employees is a subject of much debate. Some believe that remote staff members work more and better, while some claim that their performance deteriorates. What is your own impression?

- The productivity of remote work depends on the particular personality. As my experience suggests, at first, when you realize that you don't have to spend hours on commuting and can work in the comfort of your home, it really seems that your performance improves. Later, though, it occurs to you that the office has simply moved into your home, the boundaries of the workday become blurred, and you spend more time at the workplace with the same outcomes as before. 

The problem is that dealing with the same tasks at home is more time-consuming than at the office, the main reason being communication difficulties. Issues that could be solved in a few minutes at a face-to-face meeting now require you to find a slot in your calendar and schedule a call that would usually last longer than a personal encounter. Also, there’s little time to relax between these remote sessions. Fortunately, this initial treadmill-style period does not last long: you start adapting and learn to limit your working day fairly soon. I would say that the transition to remote work had little impact on Softline's productivity as a whole, largely because our employees have been making every effort to develop their self-discipline. 

- Do people who prefer working at home outnumber those who would like to return to the office?

- With each new day of the quarantine, more and more people are willing to return to their familiar workplace. Indeed, human needs are not cast in stone; after a long boring stay at home, everybody seems to develop a craving for socializing and a change of scenery.

Besides that, pretty much depends on the situation at home. Softline is a young company, many of our coworkers are distracted from work by small children, and not everyone has the opportunity to set up a decent workspace at his or her residence. 

In general, employees appreciate a healthy balance between work and personal life, access to efficient communication, and a chance to enjoy some privacy and concentration when needed. Some people manage to cope from home; some prefer the office, while others choose a mixture of both. 

- If all quarantine restrictions were lifted tomorrow and employees were given the choice to continue working at home or return to the office, how many of them would prefer the former option?

- The share of remote work would certainly be higher than it used to be. Before the pandemic, this opportunity was granted only to a select few employees, since many companies were wary of a massive transition to telecommuting. Now that all of us have unwittingly had this experience, managers have discovered there is nothing wrong with remote work. Quite the opposite: remote access can benefit the company by reducing the number of workplaces, powering mobile offices, and much more. Nevertheless, the ultimate decision on who can keep working remotely and who could perform better at the office will depend on the specific needs of the company.

- What is the most important thing about managing a remote team?

- I would identify three factors here. First, an employee should never stop feeling part of the team. This sense of unity should be supported by various activities. 

The second factor is self-discipline and accountability. We need to convey to the employees that no matter where they work, their job is a top priority. To live up to this principle, they need to master time management. 

The company can help them through special webinars, psychological consultations, and peer support within working groups. I think the best way of monitoring your workforce is automated reporting when each task is entered into the system, while its status and deadlines are tracked by managers, customers, and, above all, the workers themselves. 

And the third key factor is, of course, trust. Letting employees manage their time flexibly is way more effective than controlling their every move. At Softline, we decided to give our staff members the right to manage their 8 working hours however they please to do their job better. Accordingly, we do not use any employee monitoring software and believe that it’s the final result that counts.

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