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Considerations for Employees who are Working Remotely

Covid-19 changed the way many organizations do business and organizations have had to learn how to navigate the many challenges of remote work: lack of face-to-face supervision, keeping employees engaged and motivated and managing the work environment are just some of the challenges with remote work. During the pandemic, many employers shifted to a full or hybrid remote work arrangement, but with COVID restrictions being lifted and life slowly returning to the pre-pandemic norm, what was just a temporary measure necessitated by the COVID pandemic is becoming a more permanent arrangement by choice.

Whether you choose to adapt to a fully remote workforce or a hybrid remote work arrangement, employee’s activities while working remotely should be subject to the same standards that are applied at the organization’s offices regarding confidentiality, security, quality, and access to business documents just to name a few. In addition, an employer must continue to comply with applicable employment legislation and continue to ensure the health and safety of employees to minimize the risks of workplace injuries while working remotely. To help minimize liabilities, employers who are considering implementing a permanent remote work arrangement should ensure that they establish and implement a clear remote work policy along with a well drafted remote work agreement between the employer and the employees.

Below are some key areas to consider when creating a remote work policy:

Availability and Hours of Work

A remote work policy should clearly outline availability expectations. One of the disadvantages of working remotely is that employees are in various locations. This sometimes makes it difficult to have spontaneous meetings or pop by someone’s desk for a quick meeting or chat about business. A solution for this may be to incorporate schedule requirements including structured, periodic check-in times with employees. While there has been much written recently about the value of flexibility for employees who can have greater control over their schedules while working remotely, it may still be necessary to set parameters for hours of work and set rules for overtime. So, regardless of the flexibility of work schedules, the employer may want to set expectations for employees to be accessible during particular hours and to be available to respond promptly to any time-sensitive calls, emails, or other communications from the organization’s clients or other third parties critical to the organization’s purposes.

Physical Environment

If there is a preference for a physical working environment for your employees, outline these expectations in your policy. Ensure your employees know what the requirements are for a physical working environment whether it be in the employee’s home or alternative location. If necessary, the employer may require employees to provide addresses and locations from which they are working remotely and update these when necessary. Employers may wish to establish expectations for dependent care arrangements and personal responsibilities to ensure that employees are able to meet their job responsibilities without interruption or distraction.

Your remote work policy should outline the importance of protecting confidential information in remote work settings.
Your remote work policy should outline the importance of protecting confidential information in remote work settings.

Security

Security is a big concern with remote work. Your remote work policy should outline the importance of protecting confidential information in remote work settings. Your policy should set guidelines for working remotely to secure records and prevent unauthorized disclosure of confidential business information.

Employers should consider the processes for storing business documents, especially sensitive and/or highly confidential files, on the organization’s secure servers and not on the employee’s remote hard drives.

Your organization might consider specific policies mandating secure internet connections or virtual private networks with a strict exclusion of public wi-fi. And there should be a policy and process for reporting a security breach if the employee has any reason to believe that business information has been accessed by any unauthorized person(s).

And, of course, if budgets permit, it may be prudent to provide remote-work employees with secure computers and other hardware, owned by the organization. Related policies could then restrict the processing or storage of any of the organization’s information on the employee’s personal equipment.

Client Confidentiality

Some employer’s client information may be particularly sensitive. Customers have a right (both legal and moral) to expect their confidential information to be protected. Employees who are working remotely should be reminded of their obligation to take appropriate precautions to ensure that confidential information not be exposed to third parties, including family members, visitors or any other persons residing, working or simply present at the remote work location.

Clearly outline when the employee is considered to be in the physical work environment and when they are not.

Health and Safety

The remote work location is an extension of the physical office. While the Ontario Health and Safety Act appears explicitly to not apply to work performed by the owner or occupant in or about a private residence, the employer should practice due diligence and it would still be considered best practice to direct employees to observe all applicable health and safety policies when working remotely.

Remote work may also be conducted in locations other than the employee’s home. This could be highlighted in the policy and employees reminded that they could consult with their health and safety representative (if applicable) in respect of best practices in setting up a remote-work location. Employers continue to be responsible to take every reasonable precaution to protect the well-being of their employees. And in the context of a “distributed workplace” employers should be clear about the employer’s and employee’s shared responsibility to ensure a safe workplace.

Injuries sustained at the employees’ homes would be treated as a workplace-related injury, so it is imperative that that organizations continue to manage health and safety for employees who are working from home. To minimize the health and safety risks associated with working from home employers should ensure that the remote-work policy covers the following:

  • Define the workplace. Where does the workplace extend to and how does the workplace extend into the employee’s home?
  • Clearly outline when the employee is considered to be in the physical work environment and when they are not.
  • Be clear about break times and ensure that employees understand that breaks are time away from work.
  • Employees should be made aware that just as they are expected to maintain a safe work area free of safety hazards while in the office environment, they are required to do the same in their home workspace.

Confusion of expectations and disconnections between employees and employers from not having a clear remote work policy can result in undue risk to both parties. An effective remote work policy should establish the guidelines and expectations for performance while working remotely, along with providing a framework for monitoring and addressing situations of non-compliance. By doing so the employer may enjoy a competitive edge, even during trying and difficult times, as they provide employees the opportunity to continue to contribute to the organization’s ongoing success in an evolving understanding of how work gets done.

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