Remote work has redefined the workplace, opening up a realm of possibilities of where and how work gets done. People aren’t glued to their desks anymore. They’re rolling out of bed in their pajamas and taking a few steps to their home office. They’re camping out at local coffee shops and fighting over power outlets. They’re choosing to live in a location that’s completely independent of their job. They can go anywhere and everywhere, and that level of freedom is incredible, one that wasn’t possible for most workers until now.
Now, it’s a whole new world, with more people than ever performing their jobs virtually. Gallup reports that 43% of Americans work remotely at least some of the time, and that number is expected to increase. Research shows that not only is remote work something Americans want, they’re willing to leave their current job for it. In fact, 51% say they would change jobs for one that offers more flexibility, and 37% would leave specifically to work remotely at least part of the time.
When employers allow remote work, they can tap into talent from all over the world, not just the people who live close by or are willing to move.
Employers too are seeing the benefits of embracing a more modern workforce. Like their employees, they recognize the value of remote-work opportunities. When employers allow remote work, they can tap into talent from all over the world, not just the people who live close by or are willing to move. They also don’t have to worry about logistical concerns like a lack of office space or equipment, which can help cut costs.
As remote work becomes more accepted and mutually beneficial, employers will want to consider any risks that may emerge from a remote-work arrangement.
Here are the things to consider as you plan for remote work:
Whether employees work from the corporate office or from their living room, they’re still employees of the company, and employers are required to treat all employees equally. That means the same workplace rules still apply, including those on safety.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to provide a safe workplace environment, one that’s “free from recognized, serious hazards” and complies with occupational safety and health standards issued under the OSH Act. Employers are also still required to distribute safety notices (which can be electronic) and report injuries and illnesses to OSHA, based on the employer’s size and industry classification.
While OSHA requires a safe work environment for remote workers, it doesn’t conduct home inspections or expect that employers do. It also doesn’t hold employers responsible for an employee’s home office, saying the employee is ultimately responsible. How then are employers ensuring safety?
Employers need to promote safety for all workers, including those who are remote. That doesn’t have to mean a home-office inspection and instead could entail offering safety tips in a company newsletter or other communication.
Accommodations under the ADA
Employment law requirements aren’t any different for a remote workforce, and that includes employers adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Employers may need to make adjustments to equipment so an employee can work remotely, even if working remotely is an accommodation in itself.
It’s not clear-cut what equipment employers must provide for remote workers according to the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), and the ADA and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) haven’t addressed the issue. Equipment requests related to a disability should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Items like an ergonomic chair or back pillow can be a substantial investment, but since they likely won’t count as an undue hardship under the ADA, employers should provide these accommodations for employees whose disabilities require them.
Injuries and workers’ compensation
Workers’ compensation laws differ state by state, but under most circumstances, employers are required to provide coverage for their employees. And if an employee is covered by a workers’ compensation policy, it doesn’t matter where the employee is located when an injury occurs, as long as the injury is work-related.
For an injury to be work-related, it must arise out of and in the course of employment — that is, it must have occurred while the employee was performing work for pay, and it’s related to the nature of that work.
Sounds simple enough, but determining whether an injury that happens at home is work-related has actually proven to be very difficult for courts across the country.
A Florida court determined that a remote worker getting coffee in her kitchen who tripped over her dog was not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits because her injury did not arise from her employment. The court ruled that all the risks that contributed to the injury — the dog, the kitchen, the coffee — were not work-related, and thus, neither was the injury.
Determining whether an injury that happens at home is work-related has actually proven to be very difficult for courts across the country.
Another court ruled that a man working in his upstairs office who was injured going downstairs to get a cup of coffee from the kitchen was entitled to workers’ compensation. The Minnesota court held that it was no different than when an employee takes a break and goes to a company cafeteria or break room. The court’s decision was based on the personal comfort doctrine, which allows employees to take short breaks for eating, drinking, using the restroom, smoking and, in this case, taking a coffee break.
So then was the dog to blame for why the woman was denied benefits? Actually, no. Consider a court in Oregon that ruled in favor of a woman who tripped over her dog while getting fabric samples from her garage. The injury occurred while she was doing something related to her job (getting the samples), so the injury was covered by workers’ compensation, even if her non-employment life (her dog) got in the way.
The reason the Florida court denied the claim was that while the injury did fall under the purview of the personal comfort doctrine, it didn’t arise out of employment. Two judges on the case strongly disagreed with that interpretation, and clearly, there are some gray areas in what counts as work-related.
There’s also some uncertainty when a remote employee works in one state and the employer is in another, and the state workers’ compensation laws conflict. In that case, it’s typically the law that’s more generous that applies.
Remote workers can work pretty much anywhere, but most of them need a computer with an internet connection. And while all workers face some level of cyber security threats, remote work opens the doors for additional vulnerabilities.
The 2019 State of Remote Work report from Buffer, a social media management platform, shows that for 84% of remote workers, their home is their primary work location. But they’re also going to coffee shops and cafes, coworking spaces and libraries — all public places, where they’re using public, often unsecured Wi-Fi networks. This makes sensitive data and login credentials easier to hack and malware easier to distribute.
Aside from the increased threat of hackers, there’s also the potential for more people to be exposed to company data. If they’re not careful, employees could have sensitive company information up on their screen, without realizing who else might be looking at it too. Or they could get up to use the restroom, only to find that their laptop is gone when they get back.
Train your remote employees on the extra precautions they should take to keep devices and data secure when working in a public area. Advise them of the importance of activating a virtual private network (VPN) on their company-issued devices, and to disable auto-connect for Wi-Fi (otherwise, the device could connect to Wi-Fi before the VPN is activated). Also remind them to never leave their belongings unattended and to avoid sitting in areas where people could look over their shoulder or eavesdrop on their conversations.
Communication and collaboration
When an employee works remotely, they are, by the very definition of being remote, isolated and removed from everything else. At the very least, that applies to their physical location, but there’s a growing concern that their distant location could also lead to them feeling cut off. That’s especially true when some employees work from a centralized location and others work remotely — there are, inevitably, social interactions and collaborations a remote worker is going to miss out on.
The fear that remote work compromises communication, collaboration and innovation has caused some companies to pull back on remote-work policies. Aetna, Best Buy, Yahoo and other one-time proponents of remote work have called employees back into the office. Even IBM, which in 2009 had 40% of their workforce working remotely, reversed their policy in 2017, asking thousands of workers to return to the office.
Whatever challenges people working remotely might be facing, research concludes that, as a whole, remote work ultimately leads to higher engagement and productivity. According to Gallup, most remote workers are highly engaged — more engaged than their counterparts who don’t work remotely — and the highest engagement occurs when employees work remotely three to four days of the week. Engagement matters, because highly engaged employees are 17% more productive. They’re also less likely to leave, have fewer safety incidents, less absenteeism and lower turnover.
To help foster communication, collaboration and engagement, having a company intranet and using cloud-based tools like the G Suite by Google can go a long way. Having instant access to chat, get on a video call or edit the same document in real-time can make it easier to work together, wherever you are.
Putting it all together
Today’s workforce is becoming increasingly mobile, and there are big advantages to that, both for employees and employers. That’s why we’re seeing a shift to more remote work arrangements, because it has the potential to be a win-win for everyone.
But there’s a lot that goes into making remote work actually work, and part of that comes from addressing all the emerging risks — and doing so before employees claim their seat at Starbucks.
Employer’s checklist: Minimizing the risks of remote work
- Know the legal requirements in your state, including those for workers’ compensation, and meal and rest breaks. Also know federal requirements under OSHA and the ADA. If laws ever conflict, the law that’s more generous is typically the one that applies.
- Recommend that employees have a designated work area and provide training on workstation setup and safety at home. Share safety tips in a company newsletter, email or other form of communication and do so semi-regularly so employees keep workplace safety top of mind.
- Ask the employee to set fixed work hours. If an injury does occur at the employee’s home, you can more easily determine whether it happened within designated work hours.
- Consider providing employees company-issued devices with endpoint security like anti-virus software, a virtual private network (VPN) or other cloud-based software to connect securely to your business network. Train employees on the extra precautions they should take when working in public areas.
- Have regular checkpoints to help ensure employees are staying engaged and productive. Out of sight should not mean out of mind, and you should be communicating regularly with remote employees. Collaboration tools like a company intranet and G Suite by Google can make communication and collaboration a lot easier.
- Update your policies to include one on working remotely. Work flexibility means different things to different people, so be clear on what’s allowed and what’s not. Document your expectations, everything from having a designated workspace and its specifications to setting work hours, using company equipment, etc.
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In this issue
- 1 min read Change is coming: But what will it look like?
- 8 min read Keeping up with a remote workforce: 5 things to consider
- 6 min read Beyond awareness: Supporting mental health among employees
- 6 min read Time to change up your captive?
- 8 min read 6 ways a single-payer model could impact workers' compensation