Coronavirus (COVID-19): Remote Work

Author: XpertHR Editorial Team

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak becomes more acute, employers must consider remote working options and implement emergency communications plans.

While an organization already may have been offering flexible work options to certain teams or job classifications, a public health crisis may propel an employer to scale those options to most, if not all, of its workforce.

Employee Health

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that remote work is one strategy to control transmission of the coronavirus. Federal, state and local labor agencies are following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations for social distancing and limiting face-to-face contact. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) enforces an employer's legal requirement to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards.

Based on these recommendations and compliance requirements, an employer should strongly consider making remote working options available to as many workers as possible. Even if an employee is not generally allowed to work remotely due to particular job duties or the employer's industry (e.g., healthcare), employees with disabilities that put them at high risk for complications associated with COVID-19, or employees who may be pregnant, may request to work remotely as a reasonable accommodation to reduce chances of infection.

Security

If an organization has made the decision to shift to mostly remote work, then it may need to expand its remote network capacity. However, hiccups may arise as network connections are strained with the increased access.

In addition, employees should access corporate files in a secure manner when working from home. Access should be provided through a virtual private network (VPN).

Mobility often requires employees to have remote access to a company's intellectual property, unique processes, client information and other confidential business information that have allowed the business to grow and thrive.

Addressing Practicalities

A workplace policy should address:

  • The process for making remote working requests;
  • Equipment and supplies;
  • Safety concerns;
  • Wage and hour issues, particularly regarding nonexempt employees;
  • The duration of arrangements.

During a pandemic or other public emergency, an employer may consider offering additional support, flexibility or pay to employees. For example, an employer may consider making extra payments to employees to help them transition to telecommuting. Consider offering a reimbursement to employees to upgrade their home internet connectivity up to a speed that is suitable to working from home.

These types of temporary, emergent measures should be communicated to employees as such, unless an employer anticipates making them available as permanent options.

Communication

By shifting to a remote working model during a pandemic, an organization will reduce its collective risk exposure within its facilities and employee populations. However, ongoing communications regarding business continuity concerns are vital during this time.

Supervisors and employees should be trained on where to find relevant information with respect to business continuity. An organization may include its emergency plans in employee handbooks, policy manuals and business plans.

An employer should have mechanisms in place that will enable employees to obtain the latest communications on the pandemic. Circumstances during the pandemic may continue to change, such as by a local government issuing a shelter in place order rendering a business as nonessential and, therefore, precipitating a closure or temporary ceasing of operations.

  • Use an emergency communications policy to provide guidance on the communication channels available to employees, which may include remote access to the employer's network and access messaging on the status of an emergency (e.g., by downloading an application with the relevant information or by using a local telephone number with an updated recorded message); and
  • Ensure employees' contact information is updated by providing employees with an Emergency Contact Form and implementing a Personal Data Changes Handbook Statement.

Support and Training

An employer should take steps to make each remote worker feel supported as a valued member of the greater team. This becomes more vital during a public health emergency.

In addition, an employer should support remote work by:

  • Following best practices in terms of holding virtual meetings;
  • Using and comparing online collaboration tools; and
  • Recommending or adopting preferred applications for collaboration, communication and conferencing.

Think creatively about how to achieve business goals with remote workers. For example, focus on specific projects and output - a results-oriented approach - as opposed to a focus on the amount of hours worked.

Each employee should feel empowered to put in a full day's work but also have time for meals, opportunities to go outside, and meaningful breaks from projects. Frequent use of calendars, showing when everyone should be available for a conference call or when individuals prefer to be offline, will likely optimize a team's experience with remote working.

Any supervisors who are not used to managing a remote team should guard against making certain assumptions about workers, such as their level of technical proficiency or their likelihood to be more or less productive from home. These types of behaviors could affect overall morale and productivity.

Relaxed Work Rules

Encourage managers and supervisors to allow more flexibility with respect to work rules during a pandemic. Issues such as child care and accessibility to a reliable network connection may keep employees from being as productive as they would like during usual work hours. However, a focus on well-being and support, rather than process and consequences, may benefit both employer and employee during a challenging business climate.

Focus on building a trusting relationship with employees so that productivity goals are achieved.

If certain processes or rules did not work as well as expected, or encouraged bad habits to form among remote workers, then make a note and tweak policies or handbook statements accordingly when the emergency has passed.

Wage and Hour

Wage and hour requirements also may come into play with remote work.

Employers must maintain and preserve accurate records containing a variety of information. For nonexempt employees, this includes start and stop times, the time of day and day of the week on which the employee's workweek begins, the hours worked each workday and the total hours worked each workweek. Employees must be paid for all hours worked. Needless to say, this can be a challenge when employees work remotely.

In addition, many states require that employers provide nonexempt employees meal and rest breaks.

Finally, employers may not require employees who are covered by the FLSA to pay or reimburse them for additional costs employees may incur if they work from home (such as internet access, computers, additional phone line, increased use of electricity, etc.) if doing so reduces the employee's earnings below the required minimum wage or overtime compensation or if telework is being provided to a qualified individual with a disability as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Additional Resources

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Workplace Resource Center

Coronavirus (COVID-19): FAQs