Tamara L. Bock is an employment advisor and litigator who is committed to helping employers bring out the best in their employees. She is a Member of Epstein Becker Green's Employment, Labor and Workforce Management Practice and can be reached at [email protected].
You've been forced into isolation for so long, it may be starting to feel good. After all, by eliminating the commute to the office alone, workers can reclaim an average of more than nine days each year. And employees aren't the only ones benefiting. With all of their newfound extra time, workers are, well, working. If you are an employer that is considering turning 2020's trial-by-fire-remote-work experiment into an actual long-term business plan, below are a few items to troubleshoot before making the transition permanent.
Management. It's critical to understand how best to manage individuals whom you cannot see without an appointment. Consider how to monitor progress effectively and how to communicate to your workforce regarding both feedback and any newly implemented changes to monitoring. Employers are increasingly turning to "tattleware" or other web-based surveillance software to monitor productivity. Some states may require employers to provide advance notification of, and consent for, surveillance software use. Employers also should consider the effect of new monitoring methods on employee privacy and morale. Thoughtful and planned communication to the workforce about the company's goals and policies may help smooth the long-term transition from live to electronic monitoring.
Expectations. Consider revisiting or renewing basic employee expectations. For example, will the company require employees to be available and/or online during specific times of the day? Consider whether to establish an online dress code and whether any in-person meetings will be required. Should conversations only take place on company-provided platforms rather than on personal devices? Review state laws and company policies regarding recording conversations and meetings and broadly communicate expectations.
Data Privacy. Data privacy may become more challenging to manage when a workforce is primarily remote. Best practices are to have an employee use only company hardware and company email for any work-related communications or document management or creation. If BYOD ("Bring Your Own Device") is your preference, consider using a mobile device management solution, network access control appliance or other technical tool to mitigate risk. Companies should provide a virtual private network (VPN) internet connection for employees to help ensure the safe transmission of sensitive data and, once in place, ensure that it is secure and properly configured. Training for all employees regarding maintaining the security of electronic data, including data stored on smartphones, should be required regularly.
Harassment and discrimination. Harassment and discriminatory behavior persist in the virtual workspace, and they might even worsen as colleagues are virtually "invited" into one another's homes. Establishing dress codes and location requirements for virtual interactions, along with established processes for complaints, may help alleviate these issues. Consider whether some meetings may be randomly recorded/monitored to prevent unwanted behavior. How will internal investigations of harassment and discrimination be conducted: entirely remotely or will in-person interviews be required? Establish a procedure before it becomes a problem. As with an in-person workforce, it is important to keep abreast of new requirements stemming from, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court's recent expansion of the protections of the federal Civil Rights Act to LGBT workers.
Confidentiality. Maintaining company and client confidentiality remains critical. Establish protocols regarding how confidential information received while working virtually may be transmitted, stored and disposed of, as well as where confidential and/or sensitive conversations may occur. Clients may be lenient about having family members overhear conversations now, but odds are they will grow increasingly less forgiving as remote work becomes a company choice rather than a pandemic-imposed requirement.
Mental health. Mental health has become a priority for management with the confluence of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, #Metoo and the economic strife many are experiencing, witnessing or anticipating. Employers may consider how to alleviate issues of lack of work/life separation or isolation. Managers and human resource professionals can consider undergoing training to learn techniques to assist their workforce with managing the isolation and mental health issues surrounding remote work as well as the unique impact that COVID-19 is having on communities of color and women. Many companies have begun to address these issues by providing spaces for open discussion as well as by providing wellness benefits to their workforces.
Personal connections and creativity. Many believe that personal connections and creativity are hard to cultivate remotely. While "watercooler spontaneity" may be lacking in the online environment, consider having regular online meetings required among different groups and individuals to check in and create an opportunity for creativity and connection. Consider how to create mentoring, training and professional development opportunities in a virtual environment. "Soft trainings" regarding how to manage remote workforces are available.
Professional development and marketing. Consider formalized training to the workforce to help with the use of online tools such as Zoom, Skype, Slack and others that will increase the efficiency, communication and effectiveness of a remote workforce. This will enable all employees to have an understanding of the technology available to them. Further, consider exploring new platforms and resources that can enhance the substantive professional development resources available to your workforce.
Worker health and safety. Remote workforce or not, stay on top of evolving requirements for paid sick leave and family and medical leave, especially under legislation designed to address COVID-19 issues. With respect to remote work, consider the safety and set up of remote workspaces. A working space that is not ergonomically sound could result in hefty medical or physical therapy bills down the line. Proper communication and training regarding equipment and office set up can mitigate risks for both employee and employer. Evaluate everything from hazards such as clutter, to where to position one's computer screen and whether the kitchen stool really is the right long-term seating choice. If an injury occurs, companies must determine whether the worker was truly engaged in employment at the time of the incident. A protocol for reporting and investigating remote workplace injuries should be established.
Expenses. Consider whether and how office supplies and workplace accommodations will be provided at home. Will budgets be allocated or will the company directly provide what is needed?
Pay. In addition to the nuts-and-bolts issues of pay such as tax and benefits required for employees located in different states and countries, also consider anti-discrimination laws. As the geographic locations or your remote workforce expands consider, for example, how to ensure observance of equal pay laws when considering whether and how to adjust pay to account for the variable cost of living for those living in different cities, states or countries. And be mindful of posting, notice and other requirements in states outside those where the company maintains physical offices.
Documentation. Consider whether any handbooks and employee policies need new expectations and protocols for remote work added.
The shift to remote work requires preparation. The above is a non-comprehensive summary of items to consider when transitioning your workforce from in person to remote. It is important to consult with counsel regarding any shift in workplace expectations and standards.