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When Should I Ask Employees to Work from Home?

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The Coronavirus Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is throwing a curveball to businesses around the globe. The CDC is asking that employers do all they can to slow the spread of the virus. Many workers in the service industry need to physically be at their place of business to do their jobs, but what about office workers? Companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Indeed are asking thousands of employees to work from home. But their cultures have long embraced remote work—their policies, technology, and infrastructure are set-up to accommodate it. Yours may not be.

While many office workers have the technical ability to work from home these days, it’s not as simple as it sounds—not from a productivity and liability standpoint, at least. If you don’t already have a telecommuting policy in place, now—right now—is the time to complete it.  

If you’re an SHRM member, you can access guidelines here. A free example from thinkHR.com is available here, but keep in mind that a cut-and-paste policy won’t be enough. You need to work with a business attorney to develop your custom plan. When you do, consider the following:

Does workers comp apply when working from home?

Employees are entitled to the same workers’ compensation benefits while working at home as they are when they’re onsite. Think about that for a second and consider this court case that an employee WON back in 2011: The employee had fabric samples stored in her garage and tripped over her dog while retrieving a few. She was awarded worker’s compensation because the court determined that she was working for her employer when she was injured.

Fair or not, you may be partially responsible for the physical safety an employee’s home provides them the moment you ask them to work from home. What if they suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning while programming your code or they burn themselves pouring their morning cup of coffee while on the phone with a client? Talk these issues over with an attorney. CIO recommends having workers fill out a home safety survey that assesses individual risks and to make sure each worker has a current home owner’s or renter’s insurance policy.

How can I keep workers productive when they work from home?

If you haven’t already, take inventory of the digital tools your teams already use to stay productive. Do they already use tools like Slack, Zendesk, Zoom, and other collaboration tools? Are they already using cloud storage that can be remotely accessed? If they are, you might be pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly their communication and workflows will translate to remote work-from-home environments.

And if not? It’s time to start putting tools in place. Fast.

The American Genius recently published advice from Erin “Folletto” Casali at Intense Minimalism and co-author Margherita Pagani that offers a helpful set-up checklist for remote collaboration. Take a look at their recommendations for combining synchronous, asynchronous, and storage communication tools so that your workers don’t miss a beat.

What’s the data security risk of employees working from home?

There’s another virus that could bring your company to its knees when employees suddenly work from home: computer viruses (and other data security issues). You can bet these issues will skyrocket in the next few weeks. Some of them—like clicking on phishing emails—aren’t new. But other problems are unique to a newly remote workforce.

This MarketWatch article includes some helpful tips and examples. Things to consider:

  • Update yourself on the latest security concerns on the tool your teams will use from, like Zoom and Slack. They have unique security flaws. For instance, just this past January, Zoom was compromised by a bug that allowed intruders to eavesdrop on meetings.
  • Applications in the cloud can be much less secure to use outside of an organization’s parameters without network security perimeters at the device or user level (which can be challenging to accomplish when dozens—or more—employees are suddenly working from home).
  • Personal devices and connections are usually much less secure than business ones. One weak home wi-fi password can put the entire company in jeopardy. Be sure to educate employees on the importance of using secure passwords and added measures like multifactor authentication.

What if our equipment is damaged at home?

Your telecommuting policy should clearly outline what equipment and tools you will provide employees, what they’ll provide themselves, and who is responsible for the care and replacement of each. This includes laptops, computers, monitors, hardware, software, modems, phone and data lines, and other office equipment.

According to SHRM guidance, employers usually accept responsibility to maintain only the equipment they provide. Policies can specify that this employer-provided equipment is to be used for business purposes only, ask employees to agree to take appropriate action to protect the items from damage or theft, and insist employees establish an appropriate work environment within their home dedicated to work purposes only.

This type of language—when developed with your business attorney—can help protect the employer from having to cover lost, stolen, or damaged equipment that wasn’t cared-for per company policy.

What if my employees get sick?

Encourage employees to take advantage of whatever sick leave or PTO policy you have in place when they or a family member falls ill. Just because they’re working from home, doesn’t mean they should soldier through while they’re sick.

Employers subject to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) rules should brush up on the rules as they relate to flu pandemics (which is what the U.S. Department of Labor is relating to the COVID-19 outbreak). Workers ill with COV-19 or who are taking care of family members who have the illness may be eligible for leave just as they would be with severe flu or another serious health condition. However, leave taken by an employee to avoid exposure to the flu isn’t protected under the FMLA. The DOL offers more guidance here.

Can I single out specific employees to work from home?

In short, yes. But you should seek legal guidance if necessary and have a written policy in place before you do. This National Law Review article includes some helpful links to both Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance.

It covers two scenarios that are playing out in workplaces across the country:

  1. Sending an employee home involuntarily who has or is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.
  2. Sending an employee home involuntarily who isn’t showing symptoms but who is at risk of having been exposed through close contact with someone who has been diagnosed or suspected of having COVID-19.

We’re experiencing an event that will likely create a “new normal” for many businesses. One positive result is that your business continuity plan will be stronger because of it. If you need help with the people and processes it takes to make that happen, we’re only a phone call away