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 March 30, 2020

Coronavirus: Remote Work Considerations

Young mother working from home with baby in her lap

Managing your business remotely during coronavirus

Remote work is the dream for many workers, and more employers have added flexibility around allowing their employees to work from home on occasion. Few were prepared for the drastic shift to an all-remote workforce when recommendations to close every non-essential office came down from government entities. Without the right plan in place, remote work can create a different set of problems as it seeks to solve the overriding global health crisis. Formulating a remote work policy has to take a lot into account to create a new, virtual workspace that ensures both productivity and flexibility as businesses try to cope with our challenging new normal.

Frequently asked remote work questions amid coronavirus crisis:

  1. Remote work policy
  2. Occupational safety and health administration guidelines
  3. Shifting to remote work
  4. Technology concerns
  5. Employee training

Remote work policy

Do I need a remote work policy? What should be included in it?

If you don’t already have a remote work policy you’ve probably tried to formulate one in short order. More and more states have taken the step of shutting down non-essential spaces and services to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For those companies that can continue operations outside of their physical offices, a remote work policy is a must.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines

Should I take steps to prepare employees to work from home?

Moving to remote work isn’t just smart, it’s recommended. OSHA has introduced guidelines for preparing workplaces for COVID-19, which include recommendations to introduce flexible worksites as a measure to prevent the further spread of the disease. You want to provide a safe working environment for all of your employees, and switching to remote work for the duration of this social distancing period is doing your part as a responsible institution within your community.

Employers can limit their exposure to potential liability by following all the CDC guidelines for workplace cleaning and disinfection and educating employees on how to avoid spreading the disease, plus instituting practices to prevent unnecessary contact between large groups of employees, from remote work to staggered shifts. Sick employees should be encouraged to stay home, and any employees displaying symptoms can be told to go home.

Shifting to remote work

What do I need to address in my remote work policy?

The switch to remote work isn’t as simple as moving your work from your offices to homes. Working remotely comes with its own set of challenges and questions, and requires some degree of preparation and policy that was hopefully in place ahead of time.

One of the biggest challenges to remote work is managing the workday of yourself and your employees. For those used to working together in an office, it’s easy to take for granted the relative simplicity of staying connected, and the role that the rhythms of a workday have in regulating schedules. Suddenly shifting to remote work, particularly if there isn’t any institutional experience with it, can throw everything off. Questions that haven’t been previously considered become pressing. How do we stay in touch? How are we conducting meetings? How can we stay productive and on task? They may not have warranted consideration before, but they need to be addressed in the remote work policy. Understand how you’re going to communicate and what programs you will use before you move to remote work.

The question of hours worked needs to be addressed. Like other issues, an upfront discussion of availability and overtime hours can manage expectations for both employee and employer and should form part of the remote work policy.

Part of the problem with working at home is that with your home as an office, you can fall into a pattern of being “at work” from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, particularly if you have pressing projects and no family obligations to distract you. Even without the stress of the pandemic, you risk burnout at that pace. Alternately, working at home makes it easy to become distracted and disengaged at hours when you should be at your desk. Part of that is simply human nature, and breaks shouldn’t be eliminated because your workforce is at home; we all need to step back from screens from time to time. But a nebulous, unstructured virtual work environment can lead to overtime or off-the-clock work if we don’t take some measures to set working hours and preserve something like a normal workday. The switch to remote work isn’t as simple as moving your work from your offices to homes. Working remotely comes with its own set of challenges and questions, and requires some degree of preparation and policy that was hopefully in place ahead of time.

Of course, part of a flexible worksite means being flexible, and current circumstances have placed many in a challenging position. Some employees may have children out of school, with no daycare to manage them during working hours; others may have elderly or immunocompromised relatives that need help with basic chores like grocery shopping, or family members that have contracted the disease and need care. Whatever policies you put in place should keep in mind that these are trying and unprecedented times we’re living through, with unforeseen challenges.

In that vein, employers should identify which functions are critical and which can safely be allowed to slip, given limited resources and work hours. It’s not just real-life concerns that may be diminishing your workforce productivity; the sudden and severe economic collapse may have forced you to furlough or lay off some portion of your workforce. In switching to remote work, you should make sure that your employees know what the priorities are and what tasks can wait.

Technology concerns

How do I protect confidentiality, encryption, security?

Beyond managing personnel, moving to remote work comes with a host of technical questions and concerns. For some, working at home simply means moving a laptop from the office to their house. But for businesses with stringent security needs, there are real concerns about ensuring that their standards are maintained through the switch to remote work. Ideally, you’ve already worked with your information technology (IT) personnel to ensure that the programs and networks you use are portable enough to allow employees to work from home, but if you’re behind in planning you may have an issue trying to implement those best practices.

It’s important that your employees also understand the importance of maintaining confidentiality and security, particularly in an environment outside the workplace. Working from home in comfortable clothing can breed a wider sense of complacency, so reinforce the basic tenets of strong passwords; using encryption; avoiding unsecured networks for sensitive information, and proper treatment of any hard-copy confidential information. The panic around coronavirus has already bred opportunistic phishing and ransomware scams, so employees should exercise care with what they open and click.

Remote work may make you appreciate how much we do on computers in 2020, but it may also highlight the limitations of having everyone go home to work with just a computer. Many jobs require special equipment beyond a laptop to complete; how can you provide that to employees, and who are you obligated to provide it to?

If an employer mandates work at home, then they are required to provide employees with the necessary equipment to complete their essential job functions. If that equipment is unavailable for all, then employers cannot reasonably expect employees to perform their job to the utmost of their abilities without those tools. So be aware that if you’re limited in what you can provide, you’re limiting your employees as well and should manage your expectations.

Employee training

What employee training am I expected to conduct?

Many jobs also mandate periodic training, which can be a challenge to conduct remotely. If you’re looking at meeting software, try to find one that will satisfy the outer reaches of your needs when you hold all-hands meetings. Otherwise, you can stagger meetings or training into different sessions to address any technical obligations. If training is required to be conducted in person, you may want to contact the relevant agency to see if those requirements have been loosened during the social distancing period.

Switching to remote work can be a lot harder than it appears at first blush. Questions abound, and while there is much left to the discretion of the employer, there are still regulations and rights that have to be honored in the workplace. Talk to a LegalShield attorney if you need help navigating the world of employment law.

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