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The Rise of Remote Work: Considerations for Employers and Employees

Not too long ago, weekday mornings would bring a mass migration of office workers from their suburban homes to their downtown cubicles. “Going to the office” didn’t just mean clogged highways and subways, workers streaming through office building lobbies at 9 AM, but it also meant a whole culture of water cooler chats, conference room team meetings, lunches, celebrations, and food sharing in the break room. We have dozens of television shows and stand-up routines to show for it.

Laptops and the internet began to change all that, as workers realized they could do much of their work without having to go in to the office. “Working from home” became an occasional perk for senior employees and enabled workers to stay home to tend to a sick child or deal with a household emergency without losing a whole work day.

Now with Wi-Fi, smartphones, video calling and the seemingly endless development of new technology, employees can work virtually anywhere. And with younger workers prioritizing work/life balance, remote work has become increasingly sought after. Employers have learned that offering the option to work remotely gives them access to a wider range of qualified candidates, and many have begun advertising positions with an allowance for at least some remote work.

Workplaces that resisted remote work had no choice but to allow it when COVID-19 locked down non-essential businesses earlier this year. Practically every essential and non-essential business had to make significant modifications to the way they worked to allow for continuous operations when possible under the health restrictions.

While many workers have begun returning to their offices as lockdowns are lifted, and many more will continue to do so in the coming months, the Coronavirus pandemic has caused a significant –and possibly permanent—shift toward remote work. Some employers have already authorized remote work for the remainder of the calendar year in the interest of public health. Many employees who had never worked from home before have welcomed the opportunity, touting benefits like avoiding a miserable commute, gaining a bit of sleep or time with family, saving money on lunches, and being free from workplace “drama” and idiosyncrasies of their co-workers.

Whether or not our future includes COVID-19, it is undeniable that remote work is here to stay.

Remote work inevitably raises a number of questions and concerns for employers and employees alike. Employers may wonder, “How do I know that my employees who are working from home are actually working?” While employees might worry that the lack of delineation between their workplace and home means they’ll never be able to disconnect.

Advantages & Challenges

Although some employers might imagine their remote employees “working” in bed while watching The Office on Netflix, studies have shown that remote workers do work, and are often more productive and engaged than their colleagues back at the office. The time that remote workers are not spending getting to the office and gossiping by the photocopier can be used more effectively. They also reportedly take fewer breaks and sick leaves. Despite the fact that remote workers now live at work, many find they are able to maintain a better work/life balance, and have reported improvements to their mental health.

At the same time, though chitchat in the hallways can be a time waster and working in close proximity to others can be aggravating, these things do create a sense of community. Those endless meetings and celebrations are what bind a team together. As much as workers complain about their co-workers and the peculiarities of office life, they can feel isolated without them. Many remote workers experience weaker relationships with their colleagues and find information sharing and collaboration more challenging than those who work at the office. For this reason, some of the earliest users of the remote work model, like IBM, began a movement back to the office.

Employers who wish to introduce remote work, or improve their current remote work model, must lay the groundwork with policies and systems in place. Doing so will ensure that the workplace runs just as smoothly as it does when everyone is at the office, and that the team continues to feel like part of the workplace community.

Remote Work Protocol, Policy and Procedures

A successful remote work protocol starts with clear employment agreements that outline which roles are eligible for remote work arrangements and what, if any, benchmarks employees must meet in order to be eligible for them. Not every role is conducive to working away from the office, and not all employees are suited to it either. It is imperative that every employee understands his or her entitlement to remote work, or lack thereof.

A remote work policy should clearly outline expectations for those working outside of the office, such as the hours in which employees are to work, and how frequently they are to be in touch with the office. The policy should also address what technology or equipment remote workers must use, as well as ownership, privacy and acceptable use expectations for the devices and for the information stored on them, and what, if any, technology-related purchases and expenses are eligible for reimbursement. The remote work policy should set clear expectations for the protection of company property and confidential information, addressing things like the storage of company information on personal devices, password and encryption requirements, working in public spaces or on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, the secure disposal of company information, and the protection of company equipment, materials or information against unauthorized access. It is good practice to mandate periodic meetings like a weekly team video call to facilitate collaboration between office staff and remote workers, and quarterly in-person meetings with each remote worker to discuss goals and performance.

A remote work policy should also include a right for the employer to compel the remote worker back to the office, if necessary.

Culture, Connectivity and Accountability

“Workplace culture” does not cease to exist when your employees are working remotely. If anything, it becomes even more important to ensure that remote workers feel like part of the community. By building and nurturing a remote workplace culture, you will ensure that your employees feel connected with each other and invested in the company. While there might not be food to share in the break room every week, there’s no need to overlook a colleague’s anniversary or birthday if it’s an occasion you would have normally celebrated at the office.

There are so many technological tools to assist in fostering connectivity, from Zoom meetings to Google Chat to old fashioned conference calls. Apart from formal meetings, employers are urged to stay connected with their remote employees and to encourage these employees to stay in touch with each other and with their colleagues back at the office.

While there are also tools with which you can monitor your employees’ workflow, when your employees feel connected, these may not be necessary. Employees who feel like valued members of a team will work, and they will probably work more creatively and efficiently, recognizing the benefits of the remote work. Even in the office, looking over your employees’ shoulders does not tend to be an effective way to increase productivity, and it certainly does nothing for morale. When you trust your employees, nurture their relationships with each other and the organization, and provide clear communication on ways to manage their workflow and to improve productivity, most employees will rise to the occasion.

We encourage you to reach out to us contact@minken.com or call us at 905-477-7011 for our guidance in crafting effective remote work policies or if you have any questions regarding remote work arrangements.

Minken Employment Lawyers is your source for expert advice and advocacy on today’s employment law issues. Sign up for our newsletter to receive up-to-date COVID-19 information, including new legislation and Court decisions impacting your workplace.

Please note that this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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