As the coronavirus pandemic eases, organizations are increasingly returning employees to physical worksites. While the details may vary, one thing is certain: The future for many office employees is a blend of flexible on-site and remote work.
While organizations may be ready to take the step to full-time remote or hybrid work post-pandemic, human resource (HR) leaders need to carefully consider how to ensure they will meet increased compliance requirements that coincide with hybrid options.
Some of the biggest risks and claims arise from issues where oversight and control are diminished because employees are no longer working in a physical office. Consider the following challenges that escalate as employers offer hybrid work options:
1. Harassment, discrimination and retaliation: Harassment and discrimination are issues that surface as employees work autonomously—or, just as easily in the case of remote work, in virtual spaces. Employees tend to be more comfortable when communicating digitally, which could lead them to say unprofessional or inappropriate things through email or over instant messaging channels.
To counteract these issues, HR leaders should make sure that both written policies and communications to the entire workplace set appropriate expectations. Consider holding a virtual meeting to remind employees of policies. Employees need to understand that the normal rules relating to harassment, discrimination, bullying and retaliation do not cease to apply simply because they are working remotely.
2. Wage and hour discrepancies: Less oversight also means more difficulty tracking hourly work. HR leaders may find it challenging to accurately record the hours of nonexempt employees who are eligible for overtime pay – especially when both employers and employees are increasingly embracing more flexible hours. If a remote worker brings a claim of denied overtime pay, employers that have not kept proper documentation may find themselves without a record to help back up their actions.
As is the case for other employee oversight challenges, communication and record-keeping are key for wage compliance. HR leaders should focus on developing processes and procedures as a best practice to make sure that employees are accurately reporting all of the hours they are working, and that there is a complaint procedure or mechanism that allows them to raise an issue in real time if they do not feel as if they are being paid properly.
3. Workers' compensation: Workers' compensation tends to be a very localized challenge governed by state rather than federal laws. Employers should review the most recent laws and cases within their jurisdiction to understand how at-home work applies. Just because an organization has not set up the environment at an employee's home, HR leaders should not assume that a workers' compensation case will not be relevant. To the extent that you know someone is getting injured or there is some repetitive stress from sitting at a computer and typing all day while an employee is performing work from home, it may become a covered workers’ compensation issue.
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 and provide budgetary support to help workers establish home offices.
Three Simple Ways to Maximize Hybrid Work
Having a plan in place for the transition back to the workplace is essential. Questions will arise such as if employees who travel for work need to be quarantined and if employees with COVID-19 must receive clearance before returning to work when recovered. Though businesses should take on these issues on a case-by-case basis, they should have a plan in place to guide decisions and determine the need for the following potential solutions:
1. Technology policy updates: In preparation for full/partial office returns or hybrid work, organizational leaders should proactively examine their company risk posture, including everything from requests for Wi-Fi passwords for unapproved devices to hybrid work environment assessments. Organizations that have an idea of not only how their employees have been working remotely but how they are likely to do so in the office will have a head start.
2. Employee handbook review: Employers with employees working even a portion of their time from home may need to make some immediate and permanent changes to their handbooks. This includes addressing compliance liability and the new workforce reality – setting clear expectations, encouraging successful behaviors, ensuring fair treatment for employees, and reducing the risk of compliance issues and litigation.
3. Health and safety training: Maintaining a healthy work environment is in everyone’s best interest, as it will boost employee morale, establish trust and confidence among coworkers and the public, and allow businesses to emerge from this unprecedented public health crisis stronger and more prepared for the future. Organizational leaders should follow the latest federal and state guidelines as they seek to bring employees back to on-site work locations.
Decisions around the location where employees worked during the COVID-19 pandemic – and where they should work in the post-pandemic world – were and still are an emotional, physical, financial and strategic roller coaster. Ultimately, it is important to listen, reinforce kindness during the process, and involve employees in mapping out the solutions to each work environment challenge.