Almost nine months have passed since the Midwest began feeling the impact of the 2019 novel coronavirus. In the second week of March, dozens of states and local governments began enacting shelter-in-place orders and other restrictive measures. Flash forward two months and students, teachers and parents alike faced horrible disappointment as commencement ceremonies were postponed or cancelled. As of December 7, 2020, 14,636,914 cases and 281,253 deaths have been reported nationwide. While there is no clear end to the COVID crisis in sight, these trying times have already provided much in the way of lessons learned.
Employers have been on the frontline of the pandemic, constantly working to understand and implement new laws and regulations whilst keeping their businesses afloat. Classifying workers as essential or non-essential; setting up the workspace to be socially distant; determining leave eligibility for workers with the virus or those with preexisting conditions, children home from school, or a lack of public transportation. And all of this being done in the shadow of lurking agency enforcement actions. So, as the country transitions from reactive to proactive efforts while dealing with a likely resurgence in the coming months, what can employers take away from the past nine months? This blog series will address four principle takeaways from the COVID pandemic and forward-looking strategies for employers.
Making remote work work for your business
The problem: A decade ago, less than ten percent of the public worked remotely on a weekly basis. Today, 36% of respondents to a 2019 GetApp study reported they work remotely at least once per week, and more than half reported working remotely at least once per month. Despite that significant jump, prior to COVID, a large number of companies still did not allow employees to work remotely, except under exceptional circumstances. Government-mandated closures, however, took that option away for many employers when COVID began. Difficult tasks like defining who on staff were “essential workers” and arranging telework capabilities for non-essential employees quickly occupied HR and management employees across the country.
What’s been done: For those offices which had not established remote work capabilities, the COVID crisis was, simply put, a logistical nightmare. Attempting to purchase laptops and other equipment during a national shortage, arranging for high-speed internet for all employees, establishing data security procedures, all took enormous amounts of time, money and energy. The bottom line inevitably suffered. Even those companies which had been allowing employees to work from home occasionally quickly found they did not have sufficient supplies or access to allow all employees to work remotely for an extended period of time. Everyone rapidly found out just which of those endless meetings could actually have been an email while muddling their way through Zoom/Teams/GoToMeeting’s platforms. Then came the ZoomBombings and data breaches and network crashes. Overall, the transition to remote work was stressful to say the least.
Now, companies are facing the next conundrum: do we stay remote or transition employees back to the physical office? How do we bring people back safely? With a second wave of the virus looming, do we have to accommodate employees afraid to return to a crowded cubicle farm? Or, can we make remote work work for our company?
Moving forward: The primary takeaway here is that you have to do what works for your company—there is no one-size-fits-all solution. No matter what path you take, you must make the decision carefully and with an eye to the future. The growing second wave of the virus has already seen some state and local governments shutting back down. Now that we’ve gone through the process once, it is reasonable to assume that future outbreaks—even of more well-known illnesses like the flu—could result in similar protective measures. Now is the time to start planning for those future crises.
Review your remote network setup. If you made sudden improvements or changes to get through this pandemic, are they appropriate and cost-effective moving forward? Do you plan on hiring or laying off employees so that you may need more or less tech support in future? Keep an eye on the holiday sales—it’s a good bet that the big box stores will have specials on technology, so stock up as necessary now to be prepared for the future. Research technology support companies to find a good fit.
Determine if some or all of your staff can indefinitely work remotely on a full- or part-time basis. Make a pro/con list for allowing ongoing remote work. In certain settings, reduced overhead from eliminating a brick and mortar office may offset any negative implications of the workforce transition. Employees are increasingly looking for jobs which allow remote work, so making that an option could be a draw for new talent. On the other hand, compliance with time-tracking and expense reimbursement laws becomes more difficult with remote employees and you lose much of the office camaraderie, reducing the loyalty factor which could retain a valuable employee who is on the fence. An analysis based on your company’s needs is crucial here.
Many employers have felt pressure to bring back workers to the office setting over the last couple months. With a second wave looming, some employees view this as arbitrary and are pushing back, particularly in industries well-suited to long-term remote work. If your employees have been working from home without significant demonstrable harm to your business, you’re going to face an uphill battle if you refuse to accommodate a request to work from home which has any reasonable basis: needing to help with a child’s remote learning; a pre-existing condition which increases likelihood of contracting COVID; psychological concerns like anxiety and depression related to the pandemic. Don’t reject such requests out of hand simply because you’ve decided all employees must return to the office. Review on a case-by-case basis and consider consulting with an employment attorney about any that raise red flags for you.
Transitioning to a partially or fully remote work force is a huge decision—seek advice from your attorney, accountant, and all the important business advisers in your circle. Look for the next two blogs in the series for more employment lessons learned from the COVID crisis, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help with an employment matter. Our attorneys in the Sioux City, Sioux Falls, and Omaha offices are here to assist you.