In early 2020 companies around the country—in fact, around the globe—sent employees home en masse as COVID-19 spread rampantly and rapidly. Following exhortations for none but the most “essential” of workers to be physically present in their workplaces, employers embarked upon what would become a massive experiment in remote work.
To a large degree, the experiment has been a bigger success than might have been anticipated. Even those employers who long proclaimed that their employees simply couldn’t do their jobs remotely, found that indeed they could. But in the rush to respond and keep the wheels on so that work would continue to get done and customers would continue to be served, those employers that didn’t already have work from home (WFH) practices in place, likely didn’t make sure that the right policies and procedures were in place.
Working from home is not without its risks—to employers, employees, and customers. Those risks can be minimized by establishing the right policies and practices. Here we take a look at some of the key policies you should have in place to avoid risk when employees are working from home.
Adherence to existing policies and procedures
Chances are your existing policies and procedures already cover a number of issues relevant to employees who will be working from home. For instance:
- Policies related to confidentiality of company and customer information
- Policies related to the use of company equipment
- Policies related to working hours and request for time off
- Policies related to drug/alcohol use
A general statement indicating that remote workers will be held accountable to follow all existing company policies and procedures will help you cover some key issues that apply equally to those working on- and offsite.
The ability to work from home may either be considered positively or negatively by employees. To avoid claims of discrimination or unfair treatment, it’s important to establish guidelines for which positions, or types of job responsibilities, will be eligible for working from home and any criteria that will be used to select individuals who can work from home (e.g. length of service, positive standing according to performance reviews).
Expectations for when employees will be available during the workday and how responsive they should be (e.g. respond to all emails within one work day) should be clear and documented. Hourly (non-exempt) employees should be informed that they are not to work outside of regularly scheduled hours, or incur overtime, without express permission from their managers or supervisors. This should also include a “no email or work conversations outside of office hours” statement.
Data security is an obvious concern at all times, but particularly when employees are working remotely. You’ll want your policies to reinforce the importance of protecting company data and establish expectations for how employees access, use and store information in their homes. For instance:
- Employees must use company-issued equipment, and only company-issued equipment for work-related activities
- Family members or others in the home are not to use that equipment
- Any hard copy document should be stored in a safe, locked cabinet or file
This is an area of significant risk for employers so employees should be reminded of their responsibilities related to protecting data regularly.
It’s important to ensure that employees understand that company work should only be performed on company devices and not on personal devices, or to clearly indicate the type of work that would be allowed on personal devices (e.g. employee use of personal phones for business calls). Specify what equipment the company will provide to employees and how will that equipment be maintained. Indicate whether employees be reimbursed, or provided a stipend for, any personal expenditures—related to internet access, for instance. Keep in mind that, in addition to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) which requires that employees earn at least the minimum wage after any business expenses they’ve paid for have been considered, state-specific laws also exist in states like California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Iowa, Montana, and D.C., that employers must follow.
Employers are liable for the safety of employees working on their behalf whether in the office, or not. It should be clear, though, that this responsibility extends to only time that the employee is officially scheduled and engaged in company-related activities. Employers should reinforce any existing safety policies and procedures. They should also reserve the right to inspect the employee’s home office initially and at certain intervals, or on request, during the term of the employment relationship.
There are new issues and risks associated with employees working in locations outside of the home office. These are just some of the top issues on employers’ minds these days as employees continue to work from home. Check with your insurance carrier to see if your existing insurance will cover these risks, or if you will need additional coverage.