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Coronavirus

Before you let your employees work remote

By Paul Edwards bio

In light of growing concerns surrounding coronavirus, many businesses are wondering if they will be faced with a decision to send employees home and/or close their doors for a period of time.

One popular idea to address these concerns is to offer remote work (or ‘telework’) options. If you don’t regularly have remote workers, this may not be something you’re prepared to do. That said, we recommend making a plan now so you’re ready when you need it.

The guidance we offer below is “perfect world” guidance. We realize that you may not be able to get all of these items in place on short-notice. In such cases, you will just have to do your best to meet your business’ needs during temporary remote-work scenarios.

In other words, you may have to forego some of the planning in order to make sure you can still operate.

Of course, remote work isn’t a way for every business to continue fully operating.  But you likely have functions that have to continue even if you close temporarily, including functions that could be performed remotely if someone is unable to come in.

1. Identify what tasks can be performed remotely.

Identify essential functions to ensure ongoing and future business operations and determine which can be performed remotely. Here are some examples of in-office work that can be handled by remote workers without excessive disruption to your business’ usual processes.

  1. In-person meetings can be replaced with video conferencing
  2. Phone support
  3. Accounts receivable
  4. Accounts payable
  5. Projects you normally can’t get to:
      • Getting your internal standard operating procedures (SOPs) written down or updated
      • Improving your website content
      • Researching and connecting with more cost-effective vendors
      • Upgrading your software systems, e.g. your payroll company and timekeeping system
      • Updating your written materials: Do you have any patient/customer intake or other forms that you haven’t updated in a while?
      • Dedicating time to planning your budget
      • Getting started on your strategic planning
      • Cleaning up your customer/patient management (CRM) system
      • Marketing
      • Other forms of research
      • Updating HIPAA training — here is a link to CEDR’s online HIPAA training platform (If you are a CEDR member, it’s already activated for you; non-members can use it free for a year)

2. Use business-owned devices.

Due to the expense, this is potentially the biggest obstacle right off the bat for employers who want to start implementing a remote work policy. Employees working from home should be performing their work on a company-owned computer and, potentially, a company-owned phone, as well (this depends on your systems and whether the position requires the employee to spend a lot of time on the phone).

We understand that this could be a huge expense for your company and it may be a step that you are tempted to skip. You might be telling yourself that it’s not that big a deal to have employees use their personal laptops for work. But, before you make this decision, you should consider the following:

First, as an employer, you may want to monitor your employees’ activity on the computer during work hours to make sure they are being productive and not exposing the company to security risks. In fact, you may already be checking your employee’s user history on a regular basis for these purposes.
If the employee is using a personal computer, this standard business practice becomes legally risky due to privacy concerns. Standard monitoring practices are also made practically difficult because employees are not required to provide you access to their personal belongings. We do understand, however, that it may not be practical to purchase and put computers in place for everyone.
Second, if the employee is using their own computer, it makes it much more difficult to implement and enforce security precautions. For example, the following are standard remote work policies:

  • Remote access to company servers or systems may only be done through a secure, private internet connection.
  • Employees are responsible for preventing access by others to company equipment and confidential company information.

In order to effectively enforce these policies, you would have to start regulating what employees do with their personal computers outside of work hours. This means monitoring whether the employee takes their computer to Starbucks for coffee over the weekend or lets their kid do research for a school project. For obvious reasons, this is probably not something you want to get involved in. In addition, for employers subject to HIPAA or similar laws, a breach of confidential business information or client/patient information is more likely to occur on a non-business device.

Finally, if employees are using their own computers and phones, it is easy for the line between work-time and off-time to get blurred, which is particularly risky with non-exempt employees. If non-exempt employees start responding to work emails, making work-related phone calls, or otherwise working off the clock, it can get your business into a lot of legal trouble.

This leads us to our next topic.

3. Pay non-exempt employees for all time spent working.

Non-exempt employees need to be paid for any time they engage in a work activity, even if they willingly do so outside of their scheduled hours. This could include the employee checking email, making work-related phone calls, doing work-related research, or even creating the company holiday card over a cup of hot cocoa. The time and place don’t matter—if the employee is working, they are on the clock. This is true whether non-exempt employees are working in the office or from home, but it becomes particularly tricky to track with remote work.

Naturally, your next question is, ”How do I properly track my remote employees’ time?”  The short answer is, the employee reports their time and you pay it. You can and should require non-exempt employees to clock in and out while working from home, and to keep track of all time worked. But what you cannot do, under any circumstance, is alter what the employee reports. The fastest way to a wage and hour lawyer’s heart is through altered timesheets.

However, use your common sense and investigate irregularities. For example, is it reasonable that the employee reported two hours of email response time when this task normally takes them half an hour? If an employee is “padding the clock,” then it’s likely time to implement your corrective action policy.

Also, to make this easier, CEDR members have access to our remote Time Tracking software if you have asked us to set that up for you. The software will help you and your employees track and categorize paid and unpaid time off, as well as remote work hours. It also offers team-wide communication options, which are especially important when employees are not physically working in the same building.

If you are looking for a good remote timekeeping system, we can help. Members of CEDR already have access to up to 5 seats included in their membership (use this link to schedule a time to set that system up for your office). If you are not a CEDR Member yet, you may want to check out our HR software. You can even get a free 90-day trial!

4. Monitor performance.

While it may not be as easy to monitor the work performance of remote employees, there are some effective ways of doing so, as long as you take a proactive approach:

  • Make it clear to your employees what their schedule is and what modes of communication they should be available on during that time (e.g. email, telephone, Google Hangouts, Skype, etc.).
  • Use video communication whenever possible.
  • Schedule a check-in meeting with all remote employees each morning or ask them to individually check in with their manager at the start of each day. A regularly set, one-on-one meeting with their manager is also a good option.
  • Set daily or weekly goals for task and project completion.
  • Remind employees that they will be held to the same standards of schedule, productivity and quality of work as they are when present in the office, including attending scheduled meetings.
  • Make sure employees know they are responsible for ensuring all needed resources are available to them in their remote work location, including, but not limited to, sufficient WiFi service, internet speeds, phone access, or printer access.
  • Inform employees that if they under-perform during remote work, or otherwise violate the company’s policies and procedures, they will be subject to corrective action, including having the remote work benefit suspended.

5. Make sure that your employees are working in a safe work space.

If you are wondering what will happen if employees injure themselves while working from home, then you are asking the right questions. Just like regular in-office work, employee injuries during remote work are a risk that cannot be eliminated. But, there are precautions you can take to reduce this possibility and to show that you took reasonable steps to ensure the safety of your employees.

Inform your employees (in writing) that:

  • Employees working from home must designate a workspace to be used for working, and shall maintain such workspace in a safe condition, free from hazards or dangers to the employee or any company equipment.
  • Employees must provide photographs of the remote work space to management.
  • Remote employees must permit the company to perform a home office inspection upon request and with reasonable advance notice (this type of language would only be relevant for an on-going remote work policy and would  not be necessary for a short-term, temporary policy).
  • The remote employee must notify the supervisor immediately and complete all necessary and/or management-requested documents regarding any injury.
  • The remote employee should let their manager or human resources know if they have any equipment or supply needs.

Keep in mind, workers’ compensation insurance does not apply unless the remote worker is injured while performing work-related activities. In the case of an injury, the insurance company would do an investigation to determine how the injury occurred and whether it was work related.

6. Use the professionals.

Given the ever-present risk of cyber attacks and human error, the prospect of having employees work from home might be ringing alarm bells, especially if your business is subject to HIPAA or other confidentiality rules.

You are probably asking yourself: “What if the employee fails to use a secure connection and your systems are hacked?”  “What if the employee loses the laptop?” “What if the employee allows a family member to access or view confidential information?” Again, these risks cannot be eliminated, but they can be reduced with clearly articulated policies and a good tech guy/gal.

Depending on your industry, you should make sure that you are aware of any specific confidentiality laws (e.g. HIPAA) that apply to you and exactly what they require. There are tech companies out there that can help your company ensure compliance with these laws while also allowing employees to work remotely.

Even if your company is not subject to these laws, you most likely do not want your business information and trade secrets exposed to the world. Implementing a strategy that involves password protection, two-step verification, and a VPN can go a long way in protecting your company. Having said that, we are experts in HR, not IT. So, make sure you go over all of your security options with someone who really knows what they are talking about before you let your employees go remote.

Once you have the tech-side handled, the next step is to set clear expectations in a straightforward, written, remote work policy that specifically highlights confidentiality and security obligations. This will be even easier if you already have rules about the use of workplace computers, a privacy and confidentiality policy in your employee handbook, and a trusted HR partner. To help get you started, here is some important language that should be in your policy:

  • Employees are being allowed to work remotely on a short-term, limited basis due to very special circumstances. Outside of these circumstances, and upon the conclusion of this temporary remote work policy, employees will not otherwise be permitted to work remotely for extended periods of time (or, possibly, ever).
  • Remote employees must follow and adhere to the company’s information security, confidentiality, and HIPAA policies.
  • Remote employees must immediately report any policy violations and/or security incidents to management in accordance with company policy.
  • All equipment, records, and materials provided by the company shall remain company property.
  • Remote employees must return all company equipment, records, and materials within 24 hours of separation from employment.
  • All company equipment will be returned to the company by the employee for inspection, repair, replacement, or repossession as needed.
  • If the company provides equipment for home use, the remote employee must provide a secure location for such equipment and will not use, or allow others to use, such equipment for purposes other than company business.
  • In the event of equipment malfunction, the remote worker must notify his/her supervisor immediately.

Conclusion

Providing remote-work options can be a great way to ensure that work for your business continues to move forward even when extreme circumstances force you to temporarily close your doors to the public.

Still, it is in your best interest as a business owner or manager do all you can to ensure that your business is protected and that your employees remain productive even when they aren’t physically in-office.

Follow the guidance in this blog (to whatever extent you are capable) before sending your workforce off to work from home. By doing so, you can rest easy knowing that your remote team is still striving to help you accomplish your business goals, regardless of where that work is getting done.


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