The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that while telecommuting is here to stay, time physically at work also has value. Some jobs can only be effectively performed in person. For many employers, some physical presence at work is necessary to meet various business needs and goals. As employers ponder a return to more regular time physically on-site at work, many are asking what measures should be taken to promote a successful return.
- Communication: Employers should provide plenty of advance notice to employees of any change in staffing or on-site work hours. The pandemic has impacted employees’ daily schedules and their ability to respond to demands in their personal lives. Employees with younger children may be juggling remote schooling or unreliable child care. For other employees, the pandemic has resulted in lost elder care or the disappearance of a reliable, safe ride to work. Adequate warning of a return to work also enables the employer to work through any legal or operational issues that employees present before the workforce is expected to be on-site. For employers who want to retain good employees, enabling the employees to plan their return to on-site work will increase employee retention and ensure a smoother return to the worksite.
- Safety: Many employees are uncomfortable about returning to work and need reassurance. Employees have had over a year of consistent warnings about avoiding gatherings and being wary of anyone whose level of COVID precautions is unknown or poor. It may take time, even once everyone is vaccinated, before employees are comfortable in a traditional office or in-person work setting. For that reason, in communicating with employees about a return to work, it is important to remind employees of the COVID safety measures in place at the employer’s worksite and to assure them that the employer will enforce them. Bear in mind that the Occupational and Safety Health Administration and state and local governments have issued COVID-specific regulations and expectations. Best practice throughout the pandemic has been employer-issued written COVID safety policies that are posted and distributed to all employees. Before returning to more normal in-person staffing levels, employers should confirm that their COVID safety policies are up-dated to reflect the current recommendations on COVID safety and are compliant with all applicable laws.
- Vaccinations: Employers can legally ask employees about COVID vaccination status and, under certain conditions, require employees to get a COVID vaccination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has confirmed these employer abilities and issued guidance on how to avoid violating anti-discrimination laws in the process. Knowing employees’ vaccination status is a valuable tool in assessing COVID exposure and workplace safety issues. Obviously, with full vaccination, the workplace is safer for all employees. Whether to require a vaccination is a nuanced decision in which the employer and its legal counsel need to consider company culture, the reaction of the workforce to an employer vaccine mandate, and various legal issues. Hoping to side-step issuing a mandatory vaccination directive, many businesses are incentivizing their employees to be vaccinated by awarding cash bonuses, gift cards, and other benefits. Employers should also consider providing additional paid time off to employees related to COVID vaccinations. Many employees are hesitant to get the vaccination if doing so means that they sacrifice vacation time or lose pay if the vaccination’s side effects sideline them for a day or two.
- Continued Remote Working: For many employers, some form of remote working is here to stay. Even post-pandemic, remote working is likely to remain popular as a means to avoid long commute times and to focus upon work with all the comforts of home. To set common expectations for remote workers, now is the time for employers to create – or up-date — their remote work policies. Remote work policies outline which employees are eligible to telecommute and provide clear requirements on what the home work space must have. Remote work policies provide an excellent opportunity for employers to remind employees about maintaining confidentiality, to warn about the limits of workers’ compensation coverage in a home office setting, and to confirm that the remote worker has adequate internet speed and equipment. Particularly as many businesses adjust to a return to work staffing that looks closer to pre-pandemic norms, employers should carefully consider whether any remote work arrangement should be subject to periodic review. Such a review enables both the employer and the employee to confirm that the arrangement is working. The pandemic has left many employees believing that telecommuting is a right. A good remote work policy can clarify that remote work is a privilege that can be lost if abused or is no longer serving the business’s needs.
About the author:
Ms. DeWalt is a Shareholder and Director of the firm and Chair of the Employment Services group. Ms. DeWalt regularly counsels employers on addressing various workplace issues and on achieving compliance with wage and hour, anti-discrimination, and other employment-related statutes. In addition, she works with clients in creating employee handbooks, personnel policies, and disciplinary documents. Ms. DeWalt drafts employment agreements, independent contractor agreements, and non-solicitation/non-compete agreements. She also regularly litigates employment-related disputes at the agency level and in state and federal court.