Before the pandemic, remote work was a perk that a few companies offered some of the time. Now, two years after COVID-19 changed everything about how we work, most experts agree that remote work is here to stay.
The switch to remote work was so sudden and chaotic, employers and HR pros were adapting on the go while simultaneously dealing with the personal and professional effects of a global pandemic.
It’s no wonder that some things slipped through the cracks — like policies. Many HR pros quickly drew up temporary policies, and some didn’t have time to draft any sort of official document.
If you fall into the latter category, don’t panic! You still have time to update all your remote work-related policies. But with the pandemic waning, the time to do your updating is now.
When widespread remote work first began, two of the biggest challenges employers encountered were productivity and cultural problems. And those challenges still persist today.
How can managers measure their workers’ productivity if they no longer see them doing things like they used to? If employees need to work a certain number of hours a day, how can you know if they actually are?
Not to mention, working from home can have extra distractions, like children or other family members vying for the employee’s attention.
There are a lot of software options for employers wanting to keep a closer eye on remote employees — though those types of solutions can leave a sour taste in workers’ mouths, as it can come across as micromanaging or that the company doesn’t trust the employees.
This leads into another key challenge during remote times: company culture. No matter how much you use virtual tools, a disconnect between colleagues naturally forms when they’re not in the same space.
There can also be confusion amongst employees when they aren’t sure how often to communicate with others or which channels to use.
All of these challenges, however, can be solved with detailed policies.
From temporary to permanent
With the above in mind, there are also legal pitfalls to be aware of when you’re revising your remote policies.
The first thing to tackle is your general remote work policy. Did you ever write a new one during the pandemic? For many, that task got lost in the shuffle, and employees were told to work remotely on a temporary basis.
Going forward, it’s time to think about what type of work environment your company wants to commit to. Hybrid? Fully remote for those who want it? Completely in-office? It’s time to get that in writing and make it known this isn’t a temporary measure anymore.
Also, if remote work isn’t something that’s going to be available to everyone going forward, it’s important to note if it can be a reasonable accommodation for anyone with a disability.
If you aren’t intending to allow remote work as an ADA accommodation, this could lead to discrimination lawsuits if the same people were permitted to work remotely during the pandemic.
Issues with tech
So many amazing remote tools have helped companies adapt and successfully function throughout the pandemic. The great remote work experiment simply wouldn’t have worked without Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
But these platforms aren’t without their own legal pitfalls, too. A big one some employers might not think about: harassment. Not only can sexual harassment still occur digitally, according to a survey done by AllVoices, 38% of employees experienced harassment in 2021 through email, virtual meetings or chat apps.
Many thought harassment would’ve declined with remote work, but that’s not actually the case. The lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP suggest this uptick could be due to the blurring of boundaries that comes with remote work. If you’re on a Zoom meeting and can see into someone’s home, inappropriate questions and remarks can arise.
In the same vein, remote colleagues may have exchanged cell phone numbers to make communication easier, which could result in inappropriate messages or an abundance of unwanted texts.
It’s important for HR pros to update harassment policies to include virtual harassment, and to communicate this with employees. Many people might not be aware of when digital communication crosses the line.
Another potential issue that comes with these tech tools is employer monitoring. Do you have access to your workers’ emails and Slack chats? Do they know you do? While monitoring communication channels can help managers know if employees are staying on task, they can end up becoming privy to personal information as well.
The best course of action, even if it’s legal not to obtain consent, is to alert employees about the channels you’re monitoring. Being transparent will cover your legal bases, as well as lowering the risk of upset workers.
It’s also a good idea for you to note the business purpose of monitoring your workers, and to use the least intrusive method possible. All of this should go in an official policy.