While organizations may be ready to take the step to full-time remote or hybrid work post-pandemic, company leaders need to carefully consider how to ensure they're meeting compliance requirements.
"The biggest risks and claims arise from those issues where oversight and control are diminished because the employee is no longer in the physical office," Michael Schmidt, labor and employment attorney with Cozen O'Connor, told HR Dive. With reduced oversight, employees may feel freer to flout rules or less empowered to make leadership aware of ongoing issues. Schmidt expanded on some of the primary compliance snags on his mind — and how to address them — below.
1. Harassment, discrimination and retaliation
Harassment and discrimination are the kinds of issues that breed in darkness — or, just as easily in the case of remote work, in virtual spaces. "Employees … generally tend to be more comfortable and free to say inappropriate things online, or in an email, or, as I call it, at the virtual water cooler," Schmidt said. While a manager might feel the proper sense of restraint about flirtatiously approaching a subordinate in the formal environment of an office, he may not experience the same necessary inhibitions while chatting with the co-worker over Slack from home.
"It's about making sure that your policies … [both] your written policies ... as well as your communications to your managers and to the whole workforce, set the appropriate expectations," Schmidt told HR Dive. Revisit written policies to ensure virtual communication tools like Slack reflect the same expectations for interpersonal workplace conduct that employees have come to expect within the office. Consider holding a virtual meeting to remind employees of the same.
Workers need to understand that "the normal rules of the road relating to harassment, discrimination, bullying and retaliation ... don't cease to apply, simply because you're working remotely," Schmidt said.
2. Wage and hour issues
Less oversight also means more difficulty tracking hourly work. Especially when both employers and employees are increasingly embracing more flexible hours, leadership may find it challenging to accurately record the hours of nonexempt employees, who are eligible for overtime pay. If a remote worker brings a claim of denied overtime pay, employers that haven't kept proper documentation may find themselves without a record to help back up their actions.
Communication and record-keeping are key for wage compliance, according to Schmidt. "It's about developing processes and procedures as a best practice to ... make sure that employees are accurately reporting all of the hours that they're working, and that there is, for example, a complaint procedure or mechanism that allows them to raise an issue in real time if they don't feel as if they're being paid properly," he said.
3. Workers' compensation
Workers' compensation tends to be a "very localized issue," Schmidt said, governed by state rather than federal laws. Employers should review the law and recent cases within their jurisdiction to understand how at-home work applies. Just because the organization hasn't set up the environment at an employee's home, leadership shouldn't outright assume that a workers' compensation case won't be relevant.
"To the extent that you know someone is getting injured or there's some ... repetitive stress injury from sitting in a home computer and typing all day while they're performing work ... if it's still related to work … [it] may be a covered workers' compensation issue," Schmidt said.
As with interpersonal behavioral and wage compliance issues, employers can help forestall worker injuries by establishing clear guidelines and policies for work-related physical expectations. They also can provide workers with tools to set up ergonomic workstations, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and provide budgetary support to help workers establish such home offices.