Rules, discipline and performance issues when your employees work remotely

remote work Apr 18, 2020

No one knows what the world (and specifically the working world) will look like post Covid-19. But everyone agrees that there will be a 'new normal'. Things will not go back to the way they were and the best way to prepare for that, is to change our perceptions and mindsets - especially where these have been based in convention rather than facts or best practice. 

Body-in-the-seat: necessity or convention? The debate is moot, for now.

There have been many calls over recent years for the restructuring of how work is done - making more room for our families and questioning the real value of the traditional workday. Studies on actual employee productivity have found that having a body-in-the-seat does not equal productivity. Yet many companies and managers have been clinging to the belief that when employees have their bodies-in-their-seats, it means they are productive. Now everybody has suddenly been forced into an all too real practical test - and many leaders have had to step back and re-examine which traditional ways of working exist because of convention, and not necessity. [Find some valuable insights on this process here.]

Whilst some categories of staff obviously have to be physically present at the workplace for operational and 'hands-on' jobs, there is a large swathe of jobs where full-time physical presence at the workplace is unnecessary and..... well, counter-productive. Think 'knowledge workers' - programmers, physicians, architects, engineers, scientists, design thinkers, accountants, lawyers, academics, and any other white-collar worker, whose line of work is to 'think for a living'. A friend of mine, who has a consulting engineering business, told me that he now has much closer contact with his team by having a fixed daily virtual meeting to catch up on progress; and he himself gets a lot more done because of fewer interruptions of staff popping into his office all the time.

If the body-in-seat mentality doesn't work well when employees are the office, expecting to continue this mentality when they are working from home, will fail miserably, especially whilst the lockdown is in place. The current scenario does not equal 'working from home'. It is being confined to your house during a global pandemic...trying to get work done with kids trying to adjust to virtual school, worrying about the safety of family members, working in close proximity to a spouse or partner all day long, or being alone except for a few video calls now and then, and all the while being exposed to nonstop bad news and uncertainty. 

Executives and managers nevertheless have the opportunity now to re-assess and to choose quality work over quantity of work: to stop rewarding the faster response over the better response, or the longer workday over a more productive workday. Make no mistake, however - managers will have to know (or be trained) how to manage and measure the performance of subordinates with reference to results, instead of micro-management or policing their movements during the workday.

How can you support your team during this time and take advantage of the 'new normal'?

Top freelancers have long known that it's important to disconnect to accomplish great work. It's time for suddenly-remote teams to learn from them and end the body-in-seat mentality once and for all. Rather try something like 'time chunking': it is a practice of blocking out pieces of the day when you can electronically disconnect and focus on performing work that requires deep thinking. Start giving your team dedicated blocks of time throughout the day when they have to be online and other times when they can disconnect and work free from interruptions.


  • They can focus deeply on their work without interruptions and actually produce great results.
  • It allows your suddenly-remote employees who have kids to connect with their family, and that means when they come back to their desk, they'll be significantly more focused and productive.
  • Creative ideas that emerge after a midday exercise- or meditation session, may have more value than putting in facetime at the (virtual) office.
  • If your employees are disconnected, you also get to unplug and enjoy similar accomplishments. What a treat to have a few hours when you know that you won't be interrupted and can actually get your work done!

Reset your mindset - make peace with the fact that 'work' is something you do, not a place you go to.

Ask different questions to determine where your team needs your help and your focus. Instead of asking "how are you", be more specific: "What are you finding challenging right now?", "What do you spend most of your time thinking about these days?", "What are you most excited about?"

Check-in regularly with your direct reports - both about work and about how things are going in general. Share a story, learn something new about team members by starting meetings with an ice breaker. Have virtual coffee breaks to blow off steam.

Don't let the quiet people get lost. Appoint a moderator in team meetings who can ask questions, so that it is not just the most vocal people who get heard. 

[Sourced from ZDNet and Forbes]
What if an employee is breaking rules, slacking or not performing when working remotely - can you take action?


You can, in principle, institute or continue with disciplinary action if an employee has breached workplace rules or policies and this amounts to misconduct.

However, when doing a disciplinary interview/hearing virtually, make sure that all the relevant role players have access to the necessary digital tools and software (including the employee and his/her representative). It is preferable to do it on a video platform, to minimise the possibility of 'coaching' of witnesses.

Also ensure that the proceedings and the digital platform you use are secure - to protect privacy and confidentiality.

Practical arrangements for obtaining, verifying and sharing documents should also be made - perhaps a practical way is for the parties to submit lists or copies of the documents they require, to a third-party facilitator such as the HR manager, to compile a digital bundle of documents which can then be shared / screenshots / similar with all the parties.

Fairness - both substantive and procedural, will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis in respect of time frame, capabilities, urgency, and so on.

Performance issues
Where unsatisfactory performance is due to the fault of the employee (e.g. negligence or carelessness), it is a disciplinary matter. However, if an employee is not performing on par, due to competency issues, then the process that is required is Incapacity counselling. 

The employer can institute or continue performance management sessions with an under-performing employee working remotely - however meticulous record-keeping is still important, i.e. proof of phone conversations. virtual meetings, emails, etc. The employee should also be allowed to have the (virtual) assistance of a co-worker during a formal process.

BUT - bear in mind that you should make allowances in relation to how you measure the performance and productivity of your employees (especially remote workers) during this time. Employees are likely to be feeling stressed, distracted, overwhelmed and confused…and they cannot be expected to be in top form; nor will it show you what your business would really look like in a remote-working model. You are much more likely to help employee productivity by focussing on being supportive, flexible and connected with your teams. 

Cybersecurity and confidentiality

Apart from potentially upgrading hardware, software and cybersecurity protocols from a business perspective in order to protect your information and enable operations to continue remotely in a secure manner, remember to also remind and alert your employees to possible risks in this regard.

Do refresher training on relevant policies such as IT, device security (digital and physical), confidentiality, etc. and remind them that they are working in a different space with family members around. Inform them of techniques used by fraudsters, such as phishing emails; and ensure that your security settings on platforms such as Zoom are at its highest levels.

Make sure that, should the worst happen, you have a cyber response plan in place in case of a data breach. Although the full implementation of POPIA has been delayed, the Information Regulator has implored organisations to voluntarily comply with the provisions relating to the protection of personal information. Apart from anything else, reputational damage in the wake of a data breach is bound to happen. Rather be safe than sorry.  
© Judith Griessel 

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