GeneralWork Health and Safety

A Practical Guide to Managing Remote Employees During COVID-19


Unless you are an essential worker, just about all businesses have employees working from home. For many employers all their employees are now working remotely. In this client alert, we will discuss firstly the challenges posed by remote work and in addition, the very real opportunities it creates.

As we will be focussed on the challenges imposed by remote work and in particular when working from home, we will also look at some of the mechanism employers can adopt to address these challenges. If an employer has policies regarding working from home, it is important those policies are reviewed to ensure they are still practical and achievable in the current climate. It would be best to be able to ensure that all employees are working in a safe, secure and optimal location, however this is just not practical when so many employees have no choice but to work from home. It would also be ideal to ensure that employees are actually working when they are supposed to be working, but again parents with young or school aged children may now find this challenging. These are some of the issues we will examine.

Work Location and Home Set-up

It is trite to say that despite the fact that employees are not working in the employer’s premises, whilst working, the employer still has work health and safety obligations to its employees. To the extent reasonable, employers should make proper enquiries of their employees as to where they are working within their homes, whether that is safe and whether they have the necessary equipment to safeguard their health and wellbeing. If employees are expected to sit in front of computers or on the phone for long periods, the employer should be ensuring to the extent possible that the employee has a suitable chair and desk for this purpose.

If an employer has the requisite resources available, it may wish to assist employees by purchasing the necessary equipment for setting up an office at home. In usual circumstances, an employer that asks an employee to work from home, will normally bear the additional cost to the employee of doing so. In the current climate, it is possible to agree with your employee that they will bear this additional cost in return for the ability to continue working. The alternative being that other cost saving measures are put in place such as reduced hours, redundancies, stand down and the like.

When working from the employer’s premises, employees typically take an unpaid break for lunch and, depending on the industry, one or two paid or unpaid rest breaks during the course of the day. Where employees are working from home, they may not consider it as necessary to step away from the ‘virtual office’ and take a break. Where practical, employers should encourage employees, where they would ordinarily step out of the employer’s premises for a break, to still take that break to get some food and exercise, maybe take a walk around the block, and return to the ‘virtual office’ refreshed and reenergised.

Lack of Supervision and Oversight

A common issue with remote work is the inability for managers to have a clear understanding of exactly what employees are doing whilst working. This raises a challenge but also a fantastic opportunity. It will become quickly evident what type of employees are currently employed and how the culture of the business has either facilitated the practice of only working when watched or whether the employees are self motivated. It stands to reason that in circumstances where employees are working remotely, it is really important that they be very self motivated. This is an opportunity to foster such a culture. In order to do so, managers need to set clear and structured objectives and deadlines, and then inform employees of their expectations. It is important to have regular check in meetings in a structured manner. In this regard, we suggest that a team meeting be scheduled for the same time every day or twice a day (once in the morning and once at the end of the day). This is the forum where the team gets together virtually to discuss the days work, priorities and whether anyone needs help. It is also an opportunity for team members to share ideas and consult on issues. We suggest that individual virtual meetings then also occur once a day at a set time between the manager and their direct report. This will allow managers to ensure they know what the team members are doing and be able to properly offer assistance and support. It will also allow team members to get on with the work during the day with some confidence they are doing the work appropriately.

Access to Information and Collaboration

One of the biggest challenges of remote work is the relative difficulty in sharing information with colleagues as compared to talking with them when they sit next to you in an office. We suggest that if possible, employers try to recreate this by using technology which allows for instantaneous messaging. This means employees can quickly and easily send out a message to the team or individual team member when they want to ask something or can respond to another team member request or inquiry. For employers who have invested in electronically storing information, which is easily accessible, now is the time when that will pay off. For employers who have not been able to do so, and still rely on hardcopy information, this will be a useful time to assess whether that aspect of the business can be better managed. There are a number of technological solutions (including many solutions which form part of Microsoft Office) to sharing information and store information that can be made available to all team members.

Keeping Track of Workflow

I never thought I would be an advocate of team task lists. However, remote working makes this ability an essential. It is important for managers to be able to track what work is being performed and whether employees are on task. It is also useful for team members to have some visibility on what others are doing, when they are not as easily able to just ask the employees themselves. Again, the use of team applications which allow team members to upload task for all to see can be a very useful tool.

An article in the Harvard Business Review states that research has shown that the lack of “mutual knowledge” among remote workers can often lead to co-workers not being willing to give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations, and make interpersonal communications more fraught.

Social Isolation and Mental Wellbeing

There is ample research which shows that importance of social interaction to our mental health and general wellbeing. For most of us this interaction is gained in large part by our involvement in work and our relationships with work colleagues. One of the most direct consequences of working from home for many people is the increased social isolation coupled with loneliness this engenders. This is exacerbated now by the forced social isolation imposed by the government, which has restricted our ability to interact outside of work. This sense of social isolation can also directly impact on employees’ commitment to work and how committed they feel to the organisation and their role. It will be interesting to see the number of employees who resign from their current employment at the conclusion of the current pandemic. I am of the view that this number will be greater than what would be average for the organisation because of this very factor. It is therefore even more important now to ensure employees remain connected and embrace the organisation and its goals. This can only be done if the organisation and the individual employees’ managers stay connected and put in place real and ongoing initiatives to foster strong working relationships. This does not have to be solely work related. Some innovated organisations are organising social events via virtual mechanisms, such as a daily game or quiz, hosted by a different team member each day, as part of the morning meeting and end of week social drinks via videoconferencing platforms.

Avoiding Distractions at Home

It goes without say that most employers who are paying their employees to work from home, expect the employees to actually be working. How does this work in circumstances where, given the current crisis, it is likely the rest of the family (including young or school aged kids) are also at home? If the employee is also required to care for children or home school, how are they also going to be able to work? These are matters that must be dealt with on a case by case basis. Ideally, employees should have dedicated childcare and a dedicated workspace without distraction in order to properly focus on work. We consider that it is reasonable in the current climate that employers modify their work expectations to accommodate these realities.

However, if it is clear that the employee is actually unable to effectively work from home, then this is something that should be addressed head on. It is preferable to allow the employee to take leave whether with or without pay, or if you are able to stand them down under the JobKeeper regime, then to continue to have a significantly underperforming employee. This can only lead to resentment by colleagues and stress for the employee themselves.

Even though working from home is challenging and can make managing poor performance more difficult, it should not be an excuse to allow a poorly performing employee to continue to perform badly. If proper support structures have been established, and there is appropriate management oversight (even if it is remote), then poor performance should be addressed when it occurs. This will be made far easier, and less likely if managers are checking in daily with their team, and there are regular team meetings as discussed above.

We are Here to Help

We are currently working remotely but still servicing clients as usual including, with the aid of technology, via virtual meetings and conference calls. If you require further information in relation to any aspect of this client alert or assistance in dealing with an employment law related issue during the COVID-19 crisis, please feel free to contact us.

This alert is not intended to constitute, and should not be treated as, legal advice.

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