COVID-19 | 

Managing Remote Workers in the Age of COVID-19

Even as some businesses begin to reopen, health officials are still encouraging employers to allow employees to work remotely where possible. For many businesses and employees alike, the last several weeks have been a crash course in remote work. Now that some of the dust has settled, and with many remote arrangements continuing for the foreseeable future, it may be a good time to evaluate what's working and what's not. Here are some guidelines for effectively managing remote workers.

Managing Remote Workers:

  • Set performance expectations. Set clear, measurable goals for remote workers and make sure they are realistic since employees may be juggling childcare and family responsibilities, or experiencing other challenges during the pandemic. Be sure to communicate that while working from home, the employee is still expected to complete their work assignments, be available during regular business hours (understanding potential limitations due to the pandemic), and communicate with their supervisor and others as needed. Additionally, retain discretion for changing the telecommuting arrangement at any time. If you anticipate having employees working from home for an extended period, have employees sign and acknowledge a simple agreement outlining the arrangement.
  • Establish security rules. Develop a written policy that outlines security rules for remote workers, including steps employees must take to protect confidential company information (such as requiring remote workers to connect to company systems through secure means only). Additionally, ensure that your company's information technology (IT) infrastructure supports employees working from home and that employees have the necessary computer equipment, software, and Internet access needed to perform their jobs.
  • Provide flexibility for caretakers. Given the unique circumstances of COVID-19, employers may need to consider making their telework arrangements more flexible than usual. For instance, telework agreements sometimes prohibit employees from taking care of a child or elder during work hours. However, if employees are asked to work from home due to community spread of the virus, children are likely to be home from school with no backup care available. Consider altering deadlines or allowing employees to schedule their work around their child or elder care needs.

    Note: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) generally requires that an employee must be paid for all the time between their first and last principal work activities. However, the DOL has announced that it won't apply the continuous workday rule in certain situations where employers give teleworking employees flexibility during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, an employer and employee may agree to a telework arrangement of 7 a.m.-9 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., and 7 p.m-9 p.m. on weekdays. In such case, the employer must compensate the employee for all hours actually worked (7.5 hours in this example), but not all 14 hours between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The continuous workday rule continues to apply to employees who aren't teleworking for COVID-19 related reasons. Employers should check their state law for similar rules.

  • Maintain communication. When working remotely, interactions with colleagues and supervisors may be less frequent than they are in the traditional workplace setting. This can lead to a bottleneck of important information and may result in feelings of isolation among remote workers. To address these challenges, schedule regular virtual meetings between remote workers and their co-workers, encourage video conferencing, and highlight and acknowledge their work to colleagues. Conduct regular check-ins with employees to see how they are adapting to working from home and to provide feedback on their work.
  • Prevent overwork. The unprecedented circumstances created by COVID-19 mean that employees may be experiencing increased stress, which can lead to overwork and burnout. Additionally, with the work and home environment becoming more intertwined, some employees may find it difficult to shut off at the end of the day. Encourage employees to take frequent breaks throughout the day and to step away from their work when the day is over. Also, consider fun activities that be done virtually, such as afternoon video chats or cooking lessons. Make these type of social events voluntary, since some employees may prefer quiet time in order to recharge, especially those who are on video calls all day.

Complying with Employment Laws:

Complying with employment laws may require additional planning when it comes to remote workers. Here are some considerations:

  • Understand which laws apply. Employment laws vary by jurisdiction. If your company is in one state or city but your remote worker is in another, you will likely need to coordinate compliance with the laws in the location where the employee performs the work. If more than one law covers the worker, generally the law most generous to the employee would apply. For example, if an employee is covered by both a state and local minimum wage, the higher minimum wage would govern. Consult legal counsel to determine the controlling laws for your employment arrangement.
  • Keep accurate time records. Develop policies that require employees to record all hours worked and expressly prohibit off-the-clock work. Additionally, to ease tracking, consider implementing an electronic timekeeping system that workers can access via a computer or mobile device. Train employees to accurately record all hours worked as well as meal breaks and paid and unpaid time off.
  • Meet rest and meal period requirements. Some states require employers to provide rest or meal periods to employees. If you're covered by these laws, then you must provide these breaks to all non-exempt employees, including remote workers. Implement clearly defined policies and practices to ensure that remote workers are informed about and take required breaks. It's a best practice to require employees to punch out for unpaid meal periods. This can help ensure that employees are paid for missed lunch breaks and account for times when employees return from lunch late.
  • Furnish required notices. Various federal, state, and local laws require employers to provide certain notices regarding employees' rights and responsibilities. For remote workers, employers typically can satisfy these requirements by distributing electronic versions of required notices. Note that some notices must be furnished in a certain size and format or in additional languages. Check your applicable laws to ensure compliance.
  • Meet reimbursement requirements. Some states expressly require employers to reimburse employees for any reasonable business expenses they incur, such as Internet access for a home office. Additionally, in most cases, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must reimburse employees for any work-related expense that would bring their pay below the minimum wage (or cut into overtime pay). Regardless of your specific requirements, it's a best practice to reimburse all employees for any reasonable business expenses. Where the expense may be used for work and personal use (such as having an Internet connection), consider a system to help employees monitor and record how much of the cost is related to conducting business activities, and reimburse employees at least that amount.
  • Comply with reasonable accommodation requirements. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and many state laws, employers must provide reasonable accommodations (a change in the work environment or how work is typically done) to qualified applicants and employees with a disability, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. To provide reasonable accommodations to remote workers, employers may need to make adjustments to equipment or how the work is done.

    Note: Allowing an employee to work remotely may be considered its own reasonable accommodation if, among other reasons, an employee has a disability that puts them at high risk for complications from COVID-19.

  • Provide leave as required. Employees who work remotely are generally entitled to the same federal, state, and local leave as traditional workers. For instance, under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees who are unable to telework because their child's school is closed (and certain other reasons related to COVID-19) are entitled to paid leave to the same extent as employees who perform their work at the normal worksite.
  • Check workers' compensation policy. Consult with your workers' compensation carrier to ensure that employees working from home fall within the policy's coverage. If a remote worker is injured in the course of work-related activities, they will generally be eligible for workers' compensation, so you want to make sure your policy covers them. While state laws differ about what is considered a work-related injury, it's a good idea to define the remote employee's normal working hours and job duties in advance. This may help the employer when evaluating whether claims are truly work-related.

Conclusion:

If you have employees who work remotely, develop policies, practices, and procedures to help ensure compliance with applicable laws and maximize employee safety, engagement, and productivity.

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