(TNS) — Employers had to scramble when the pandemic took hold in mid-March, emptying out workplaces and sending workers home to do their jobs for what was expected to be at most two or three months.
But the coronavirus outbreak has persisted, productivity hasn’t taken a big hit, and a large percentage of workers actually prefer skipping the commute. More employers are extending remote work assignments, and in some cases, planning to make them permanent.
“Some of my clients are thinking about more permanent remote work situations. I have one client who is giving up all leases and letting everyone work remotely,” said Elizabeth Wylie, a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Denver, Colo., specializing in employment law.
But that will require revamping a host of rules and procedures that weren’t always dealt with, like tracking time worked, using paid time-off, worker safety, cybersecurity, inclusivity and maintaining workplace culture. Going fully remote remains the exception. A spokeswoman for the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce said the group wasn’t aware of any members doing that. But the list of companies considering shifting toward more permanent remote work is growing.
Google, Zillow and Mercedes Benz plan to maintain work-at-home policies until next year. Mastercard said it will keep them in place until concerns about the virus subside, according to a crowdsourced list of remote work policies.
And as restrictions lift and more office locations reopen, tech companies Twitter, Facebook and Square have said their workers will have a choice on coming back.
“Our best estimate is that 25-30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021,” Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, said in recent comments on how the COVID-19 outbreak is changing remote work.
That’s up significantly from the 3.6 percent of workers the U.S. Census Bureau estimates were telecommuting before the crisis. Gallup in a mid-April poll found that just over half of U.S. workers were working remotely full-time, 18 percent were working remotely some days and 31 percent had not worked remotely.
Given a taste of remote work, what did workers think? About half said if it were up to them, they would prefer to continue working at home even after exposure concerns faded. A quarter said they wanted to go back to the workplace ASAP, while another quarter said they would go back once concerns about the coronavirus subsided, according to Gallup.
“While some of these workers may reluctantly head back to their workplace, others may decide to look for new jobs that allow them to maintain the remote work lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to,” the Gallup report said.
And if the outbreak flared up again, it appears most workers would be fine staying home.
Because the switch happened so quickly, many employers didn’t always think through procedures and policies. They are going back and trying to fill in the blanks.
“Now that people are getting more of a routine around virtual work, the next step is how do they sustain that,” said Laurie Cure, CEO for Innovative Connections, a consulting firm based in Fort Collins.
Being in a crisis mode created its own energy and pushed things forward. On the whole, employers found that productivity didn’t suffer, a fear some had, Cure said. The question now is how to sustain remote work arrangements on a large scale for longer periods of time.
Managers need to be less controlling and more empowering, Cure said, but they can’t be absentee leaders either. Many will need to shift from a focus on activities to results.
She also notes that signs of exhaustion are starting to emerge and more attention needs to be paid to burnout, which might be harder to detect in a remote setting.
For example, studies have found that attending a video meeting is more mentally draining than attending an in-person meeting, Cure said. People lack the nonverbal cues they use to judge what people are communicating beyond their words.
Wylie said one issue that has come up involves time management, noting that attendance policies weren’t always enforced during the transition.
“Expectations were not well defined. Let’s just get through this period and we’ll get back to the office and we’ll resume life,” Wylie said. “Employers are now thinking about how to make this remote work situation tenable for a longer period of time, through the fall or even into the winter.”
A worker who disappeared for a couple of hours from the office would probably get noticed, but not so much now that they are working at home.
It isn’t necessarily that workers were slacking. Some burned the midnight oil, so they could handle other tasks, such as looking after kids doing their schooling at home. One question employers will need to ask is do they want workers back on a regular schedule or are they more interested that the work getting done, whenever that happens.
Looser attendance rules have also meant workers have been taking less paid time off, a bottom-line issue in that the unused time accumulates as a liability. Someone might slip out for a dentist’s appointment and work an extra two hours rather than use their time off.
Wylie said it is also a fairness issue if some employees are adhering to the rules and booking personal time, while others aren’t.
Another concern is inclusivity, said Wylie. Video meetings raise issues of who is getting screen time and being seen and heard.
One reason the transition to remote work was possible is that employees had already formed bonds they could draw on, said Marianne Wanamaker, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tennessee during a webinar hosted by ThinkWhy on Tuesday.
Her graduating seniors are dreading the idea of entering a workplace where they are known only by a square on a videoconferencing application, she said.
“This is not their idea of fun. They will have a hard time building the connections they will need to be successful new workers remotely,” she said.
Cure agrees that one of the biggest challenges involves bringing on new workers remotely and integrating them into the company culture. But she also said the shift is forcing a rethinking of that culture and whether it needs to change.
“What elements of our culture do we want to make different going forward,” is a question many companies are asking right now.
Who is Liable?
One of the issues that more extended work-at-home arrangement raises is that of liability.
“A lot of injuries that occur for people working remotely at their house will be compensable. Your home is now your workplace,” said Robert Fitz-Patrick, an attorney at Hall Estill, a Tulsa law firm with an office in Denver.
While employers can address safety issues in the workplace, they don’t have the same sway when it comes to an employee’s home. They can’t order the kids to pick up their toys so mom and dad don’t trip while going down the stairs or require the family dog to stay in the garage until the shift is over.
As remote work arrangements become more extended, expect more concrete rules in that area. Enforcement, however, is a whole other issue.
“Employers can develop work-at-home policies, which dictate among other things that the employee create a dedicated safe workspace for work-related tasks. Work-at-home job descriptions can also help define the scope of the at-home employment,” Fitz-Patrick said.
Pinnacol, Colorado’s largest provider of workers’ compensation coverage, said claims overall are down since the coronavirus hit, largely because fewer people are working and fewer workers are driving, meaning fewer accidents.
“We’ve seen just a few claims that appear to be for remote workers and prior to coronavirus, these were quite rare, although it can be hard to get an exact count,” said spokeswoman Liz Johnson.
On the whole, homes can be one of the safest work environments available, with one notable exception: ergonomics. Employees who might have enjoyed that precisely tuned Herman Miller Aeron chair in the office are making due for hours on dining room table chairs hunched over a laptop.
Home office ergonomics were a lower priority during the rush to get everyone out. But they will increasingly need to be addressed.
“Pinnacol is educating Colorado’s employers about typical home-based hazards like poor ergonomics. Our occupational safety consultants have been offering free virtual safety consultations to all businesses in Colorado, not just customers, that have new hazards to manage,” said Johnson.
The company will investigate and evaluate claims because of at-home injuries and illnesses just as it would if they originated in the workplace, she said.
Fitz-Patrick said someone who trips over the dog while grabbing a file would be covered, a case tested in the courts years ago. Same if they were injured going to get a glass of water or grab lunch under what is known as the “personal comfort” provision.
And what if they throw out their back between Zoom meetings while taking a load of clothes out of the dryer? That is a gray area. One big difference is that there are likely to be fewer witnesses at home than in the workplace.
Another issue is overlapping coverages on insurance policies. Health insurance coverage usually takes care of injuries that happen while at home, but not if they are work-related. Likewise, homeowners insurance won’t cover personal injuries, but they will cover injuries to visitors, unless they are there for commercial purposes.
“If someone else is injured on your property and it can be proven the cause was directly work-related, your company’s liability insurance would likely be responsible and your homeowners insurance would either not cover it or would be a secondary coverage,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.
Business owners who have moved their business operations into their homes have another consideration to weigh, one they should talk to an insurance professional about, Walker said. They will need a Business Owners Policy to make sure they are protected for any liability or losses that occur tied to their commercial operations. And while they are at it, they should make sure they aren’t violating rules that the Homeowners Association might have in place.
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