The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a fundamental shift in how we work.
Previously, most employers permitted employees to work remotely on only an exceptional basis. Many managers alleged that their employees would not work as hard while away from the office; they would be distracted by household responsibilities; they would not be responsive to clients and managers; and collaboration would be impossible. Businesses also worried about technological deficiencies and the security of their confidential and proprietary information.
The abrupt lockdown of the economy in March 2020 changed everything. Businesses scrambled to provide their employees with the tools necessary to work from home, and everybody adapted as best they could. To the surprise of many, businesses continued to operate efficiently and, in some cases, prospered. It is difficult to see any silver lining in the dark cloud that is the COVID-19 pandemic, but it did provide employers with a crash course in managing a remote workforce.
It is unlikely that workplaces will return to what they were pre-pandemic. Businesses are eyeing savings from reduced real estate needs. Employees are benefiting from the reduced costs of commuting, buying lunches and wardrobe needs. Everybody is saving time. Furthermore, employees have an expectation that remote work will continue in some form. Employers may have a difficult time maintaining or attracting employees if they completely prohibit remote work post-pandemic.
In light of this new reality, employers should institute comprehensive remote work policies. A comprehensive remote work policy (a.k.a. telework policy) should include the following elements:
- The employer’s remote work philosophy (e.g., remote work is only for exceptional circumstances, or generally allowed if certain conditions are met, etc.);
- The ability to work remotely should be viewed as a privilege;
- Expectations about productivity, including any instructions on how to record hours worked or completed tasks;
- Overtime rules should be referenced;
- Expectations about availability (e.g., employees must be available as if in the office, they must respond to email or phone calls within 30 minutes, etc.);
- Dress code for virtual meetings;
- Whether employees must be available to attend a meeting or event at the office or a client’s business within a specific period of time;
- Instructions on protecting the business’s confidential information and intellectual property (e.g. no printing, access to a private workstation, use only the business’s devices, etc.);
- The business’s policy on the acceptable use of electronic systems should be referenced;
- Conditions regarding access to a high-speed internet connection;
- Costs of setting up a workstation at home; and
- Recognition that the policy does not in any way interfere with an employee’s rights guaranteed by human rights legislation.
There are also other important considerations. Businesses will want to ensure they have expert IT advice on having systems in place that protect confidential information. Insurance is another important consideration. Does the employer’s insurance policy for privacy breaches and other risks cover a workforce that is largely working remotely? Consulting your insurance broker is essential.
Drafting a remote work policy can be challenging. Nonetheless, having such a policy makes the remote work rules clear for everyone, manages expectations, and avoids conflict. Other workplace policies may also require updating in the age of working remotely, especially the employer’s policy on the acceptable use of electronic systems/devices and the overtime policy. Ideally, employers will have a comprehensive remote work policy in place now, but it is especially important to have one in place before the end of the pandemic, when remote work will no longer be required but desired.
Jim Anstey can be reached at: