Remote work transition poses legal and practical challenges
Remote working, a necessity for businesses when the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, has since become a way of life for many.
The benefits – more travel, savings on office costs, the ability to increase a company’s candidate pool – can be significant. An Appcast survey found that employers received 12% more applications if they included the option to work from home. The remote work option also reduced the cost of filling the position by 13%, Appcast said. A recent Pew poll shows that 61% of Americans who work remotely say they would choose to stay remote.
Neel Sus, founder and CEO of Susco Solutions, a Metairie-based software company, said his hesitation since going fully remote in March 2020 has dissipated after seeing his business performance remain strong.
“The issues we’ve faced are probably around building culture, staff morale and general well-being, bonding,” he said. Since then, the company has implemented an employee assistance program, leadership development training, regular social events and monthly visits to seek feedback from staff.
“The check-in process helps resolve issues before they become significant,” he said.
Legal experts and HR professionals say there are many other pitfalls to avoid. Businesses may see a drop in productivity. Their employees can hold additional jobs. Some might prefer to work in an office, leading to burnout and disengagement in a remote environment. Issues around cybersecurity, wage and hour laws, workers’ compensation, and home office expenses also need to be considered.
According to experts, it is essential to define policies and procedures in advance and communicate them clearly to employees.
Design a plan
Employers need to create a program with goals in mind, said Amy Bakay, founder and CEO of human resources firm HR NOLA. They should determine whether staff should be fully or partially remote; whether the arrangement is permanent or temporary; whether all or part must work remotely; technology and equipment needs; and flexible schedules compared to a fixed schedule.
Most of the clients she has worked with are professional, administrative and staffing companies that have adopted some type of hybrid or remote work schedule. The most common model is for employees to work from home on Mondays and Fridays and work in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Bakay said companies can experiment with this model and revisit it on a specific date to see if employees want to continue. Businesses should maintain a smaller or satellite office even if they move away, as it is beneficial to have a place to go to meet a client and to have access to a printer and the internet if technical problems arise at home , she said.
“Many found there was a better work-life balance, and there was also an increase in productivity,” she said.
Employers should ensure that hourly employees clock in and out, document their hours, and understand that if overtime is required to complete their work, the employee must request it beforehand, according to the lawyers.
Companies considering hiring workers who live in other states should be aware of the labor laws of those states, which can vary significantly from those of Louisiana. Some states require higher minimum wages and designated meal breaks, and there could be potential tax implications.
What if a Louisiana-based employee wants to work remotely from another state or country? That could become a problem if they want to stay longer than a month, according to Rebecca Sha, a labor and employment attorney at Phelps Dunbar’s New Orleans office. One of the biggest risks is whether they will be subject to the labor and tax laws of another state or country.
“It’s a case-by-case decision,” said Sha, who recommends employers consider allowing a temporary move and then review the arrangement.
“If you’re talking about someone moving somewhere for six months or more, that comes with some serious risks,” she said.
Another legal risk is workers’ compensation. Even when working remotely, employers are still subject to OSHA safety laws, but whether an injured employee is entitled to workers’ compensation is another matter.
It depends on whether the injury occurred in the course of employment, the lawyers say. An employee who suffers a burn while cooking lunch may not qualify for a compensable claim, but one who works from a chair that breaks and results in an injury likely would, said Ed Harold, managing partner regional office of Fisher in New Orleans. Phillips.
Another question: Can employers mandate work in the office even if an employee requests to work remotely due to a medical or other condition? Lawyers say it’s on a case-by-case basis, and courts that have been reluctant to disagree with employers may change their minds. Sha recommends a discussion with the employee to determine if the condition is short-term or permanent and if they can perform their duties remotely.
Employers should consider reimbursing employees for equipment used to work from home, Sha said. Although there’s no federal law requiring it, “it’s a good idea to have a policy in place in writing and to communicate clearly that this is what is going to be treated as an expense and can be reimbursed,” she said. declared.
“Some of my clients pay by renting a smaller location and using the savings on a small stipend to account for reasonable expenses employees may incur while working from home,” she said.
Debates abound about how companies track employee performance. Some require employees to be video monitored; others use software to ensure staff are working.
“I think the best way is to spell it out in writing, probably in a telecommuting agreement, these will be the ways we measure your productivity and we’ll come back to that over time,” Sha said. “Document and communicate that they are not meeting the expectations you need.”
Remote work has made job descriptions and measurable results “more important than they were before,” according to Sus.
“If you have them in place, then it’s easier to have confidence that the job is being done,” he said. “You measure results, not behaviors. It is enormous.”
Companies need to be sure that their information technology is “locked down”, Harold said, and that they are protected against ransomware attacks. Other issues include working from home versus cafes with less secure computer servers, and using personal email accounts versus logging into the company portal, Sha said.
“(Cybersecurity) may be the biggest reason companies can’t work remotely,” Harold said.
How do you keep employees happy and productive? Managers will need to communicate differently and better than they did in the workplace, Harold said. He said that could include a no-meeting policy on Fridays.
They will also need to be mindful of employees who may tend to isolate themselves while working remotely, as well as other issues that may arise after the transition.
When one of Sus’ employees struggled to manage 10 direct reports after going remote, Sus turned to make sure none of his employees had more than five.
“In addition, we are very attentive to their holistic development,” he said. “We help them document a 10-year vision and work on a one-year goal and the ways in which we can help them get there,” he said. “It’s been really beneficial in keeping everyone aligned and engaged.”
Bakay said his clients have benefited from weekly Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings, covering business initiatives and having small chats to find out what’s going on in each other’s lives.
“We’ve found that to be just as important as the agenda-focused items,” she said.
Writer Andrew Valenti contributed to this report.