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Since the pandemic, there have been more requests to work from home, or even to work from interstate or overseas. Here are nine things to consider before granting that request.

What happens when you have employees who want to work from anywhere (WFA)? This can happen when people you’ve hired locally move, or intend to move, to a different city, or state, or even overseas

WFA has become much more common since the pandemic. Someone might say to you, ‘hey, I want to move interstate’. Or maybe an employee has already moved, and when you ask everyone to come into the office on a regular basis, someone puts their hand up and says, ‘well, actually, I’m not in the local area anymore.’ Many employees value this kind of flexibility. But is there anything to consider before allowing an employee to work from anywhere? The answer is yes – below are my top nine considerations.

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Equity

The first consideration is around equity, and there are two components to it – motivation and money. 

Motivation

Let’s say you expect most employees to come into the office, but you have an employee who wants to work from elsewhere. How do you make sure that the people coming into the office don’t feel disadvantaged? There may be a sense that most people are being forced back into the office after the covid lockdowns, whereas there’s one person who, just because they happen to live a thousand kilometres away, doesn’t have to. This can cause real issues in terms of motivation and engagement. 

There’s no great way around this, other than not forcing anybody to come back into the office. But what if you do want everyone back one or two days a week, and you have someone who’s highly valuable to the organisation that does want to work from elsewhere?  

One way to be equitable is to offer the same opportunity to other employees, even if they do live locally. Allow anyone the chance to work from anywhere, providing they can demonstrate how their job can be done fully remotely. 

Allow anyone the chance to work from anywhere, providing they can demonstrate how their job can be done fully remotely. 

Money

The other equity consideration is dollars. If I’m being paid in Australian dollars while living in Bali, I’m going to be better off, in relative terms, than my teammate paying the cost of living in Sydney. Or it may not be overseas. Perhaps I move to Broken Hill, which has a much lower cost of living than a major city, and this could seem inequitable to my colleagues. 

If I’m being paid in Australian dollars while living in Bali, I’m going to be better off, in relative terms, than my teammate paying the cost of living in Sydney.’

We can’t unilaterally change the salary of existing employees, but remuneration is something that needs to be considered and discussed in an open and honest way. You can’t be transparent about other people’s salaries with other employees, but you need to consider how you will take the local cost of living into account. 


Hours

Is it feasible for a person living somewhere else to keep to the head office timezone? This is worth considering if you have someone who wants to move overseas, or even interstate. For example, if someone wants to move to Perth, when your office is on the east coast (or vice versa). During summertime, that’s a three hour time difference. 

Is it feasible for them to work according to normal office hours in their own timezone? Or do they need to keep to office hours in the head office timezone? This must be considered and communicated to the employee prior to agreeing to this kind of arrangement.

Is it feasible for them to work according to normal office hours in their own timezone?’

If someone moves overseas, this can become even more of an issue – you might start getting into 12-, 14-, or even 19-hour time differences. Then you need to consider things like:

  • what fatigue management strategies, from a WHS point of view, are in place if an employee needs to be up at 2am every day? 
  • do we have the opportunity for them to work in their local timezone? 
  • are there opportunities for the employee to work with customers in a similar time zone?


Workplace Health & Safety

We have a duty of care in Australia to create a safe place to work, even if that place of work is at home. If an employee is working at home all the time, the employer needs to ensure that person’s workplace in their home is safe. 

You need to ask:

  • what additional measures are required to ensure a safe working-from-home environment? 
  • what are your current processes around risk assessments? 
  • do you have checklists for people who are working from home? 
  • what equipment are you providing to ensure they can work safely at home? 
  • if somebody wants to work overseas, what additional measures may need to be taken if it’s an area that’s not as safe as Australia? 

The best place to start is to do a risk assessment to identify the potential hazards, assess them and identify methods to control them in the most appropriate way. You can then make a decision as a business about whether that is something that you are willing to do. 


Face-to-face time

Even fully remote businesses generally have found that there’s a benefit to face-to-face time. If you have people that are working elsewhere, but you have most of your employees in the office, how often do you want those people to come into the office? Is it once a month, once a quarter, once every six months, or once every 12 months? Is it never?

Also, who pays for the office visit? If the employee must travel for a client meeting, team meeting, training or compliance work, should it be the business or the employee who foots the bill? These issues must be considered and communicated before making any agreements about WFA.

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Promotability

If you have some employees in the office, and some who never come into the office, there’s research that suggests the WFA employees may be pigeonholing themselves by not being in the office. You’re not seeing them, they’re not top of mind, so you’re not considering them when you’re thinking about promotions within the organisation. 

Also, they may be in a role that is not managing people. This might be fine; it means their role can more easily be done remotely. But what happens if they move into a people-managing position? Usually, this would require them to be in the office, and if that’s the case, it’s important to let the employee know upfront. Otherwise, three years down the track, they may become frustrated because they don’t have any career opportunities to progress into people management roles within the organisation. 


Taxes and employment law 

This can get really complex if you have an employee who’s working overseas for a consistent period of time. If you have an employee moving overseas for the foreseeable future, we always recommend that you get specialist advice on tax and employment law. 

If the move is at the employee’s request, and it’s not necessarily something that you are asking for as the employer, questions arise such as: 

  • what happens if the employee needs to pay taxes in both countries – is it their responsibility to arrange for that or will you need to assist with that? 
  • what does the company need to pay in terms of company taxes in those different jurisdictions? 
  • how do you manage the employment law in those other jurisdictions? 
  • will the employee be considered an Australian employee under the Fair Work Act or are they now an employee in that other country, or both? 

It’s definitely something to get advice on through an accountant and a lawyer, to work that through prior to enabling someone to work overseas. 


Using an agency

One thing that can make that process easier is to use an agency or an ‘employer of record’. This organisation becomes the middle person between you and the employee. The agency employs the employee in their home country. They create the payroll, maintain the employment documentation and ensure that it complies with local laws. 

This can create issues with an existing employee, for example, they may say, ‘well, no, I don’t want to be employed by this agency.’ But if the move has been requested by the employee they may be more open to the idea. It’s worth looking into to see whether this arrangement can enable the employee to work from overseas. 


Documenting

Whatever you agree, you must document it. Memories are wonderful things, they change very easily over time – sometimes this is called ‘revisionist history’. But often it’s not even an intentional thing; we just forget things or mishear information that’s been given to us. 

All agreements and discussions with employees about the considerations above must be put into writing, to make decisions and arrangements crystal clear to all parties. This is particularly important when a manager moves on and a new manager comes in. The agreement must be documented in writing. It also means that from an employee’s perspective, they’re very clear on the terms. 

Part of this documenting is the final component – a trial period to evaluate the arrangement against some key measures of success


Trial period

There’s no point saying we’ll have a trial period for six months, but not determining what success looks like. At the end of that six months, you’re going to say, oh, ‘okay, I guess it’s working.’ Or maybe you’ll say, ‘well, no, it’s not working.’ And then the employee will say, ‘why not?’

You and your employee need to agree upfront on the key measures of success. For some roles that may include getting feedback from other stakeholders. Perhaps it’s working well for the employee to be 100% remote, but it’s not working well for their teammates or their key customers. It’s important to have the key measures agreed in advance, as part of the documenting process.

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