Calls for continued telecommuting mean companies must reinforce conduct rules for all employees
Social media has been flush with laughable moments. Pets and children interrupting virtual meetings in various comical ways. Suited-up participants accidentally standing up to reveal they are wearing sweats or pajamas instead of pants. But some of these moments also might make some employers cringe.
Owners and managers learned along the way the best methods for handling the new remote reality, balancing the needs of workers with those of their businesses.
With the pandemic waning, many people have returned to the workplace. Yet experts agree remote work and virtual meetings are here to stay, so real policies on employee conduct and employer responsibilities are needed.
Michael Palmer, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in South Bend, specializes in labor and employment. He said many companies have implemented a telecommuting/remote work policy in their handbooks or use a work agreement with employees who they allow to telecommute or work remotely.
Those policies and agreements generally define eligibility for telecommuting, establish an approval process and distinguish from a reasonable accommodation request process. They also affirm regular rules and policies, such as data privacy, confidentiality, workplace safety, anti-harassment, lack of privacy regarding IT resources and communications.
Palmer said employers need to establish responsibilities and expectations, such as work hours, time recording and reporting, accessibility during work hours, communication with manager expectations, specific work duties, work area and break time to mitigate liability for injuries. They also need to establish company responsibilities such as IT support, what expenses are covered and what equipment is provided.
Employers with remote workers also should have policies addressing miscellaneous issues such as confirming the at-will employment relationship and establishing whether remote work is a temporary or ongoing arrangement. It also is important to address day-to-day issues, such as how mail will be delivered, how workplace postings will be handled, and how onboarding and training will be conducted.
Expectations should be immediately and clearly set. Palmer said employers should document the communication process, engage often and get to know employees individually, host regular team meetings, as well as individual meetings, to check in and be transparent, and effectively resolve conflicts and complaints.
“Be proactive to solicit complaints and concerns,” Palmer said. “When disputes or concerns emerge, treat them as you would in-person complaints.”
He added it might be necessary to promptly investigate problems, effectively resolve them, communicate the results and document your efforts.
“The policies and expectations are generally not different from in-person work, so employers just need to make that clear to employees,” Palmer said.
A written policy is the first step in synthesizing your expectations and communicating them to your employees, he said.
“However, verbal communication of that written policy on a regular basis is important, as is efforts to hold folks accountable when they fall short,” Palmer said.
Learning to adapt
Michelle Maravilla, senior vice president of human resources for Centier Bank, said the company did not have a plan during the pandemic.
“Truthfully, for the last two years, we just have kind of gone with the flow,” she said. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have a plan.”
The pandemic threw Centier, along with many other businesses, for a loop, Maravilla said.
Since the onset of the crisis, leadership focused primarily on taking care of associates and making sure their needs were met during the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic. Maravilla said the bank did not spend much time trying to create guardrails for conduct during a time when so much chaos was happening.
Now that attitude is set to change. Maravilla said that, in March, the bank began creating formalized guidelines for employees who continue to work remotely either all or part time, while others with more public-facing positions continue coming to the workplace.
“We think, fingers crossed, we are coming to the end of the pandemic,” she said. “Our associates need some closure.”
But employees also need to hear that the new work model Centier adapted is going to stick around.
“That way our associates can plan for what’s next,” Maravilla said.
Some associates have been coming in every day, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday — besides the first six weeks of the pandemic in 2020 when almost the entire nation sheltered at home. Those associates have been in front-facing positions, working primarily in branches in the operations area.
Maravilla said the bank quickly learned what positions could be — and can still be — done remotely.
“We have tried to become much more flexible through the whole process for everyone,” she said.
Some associates are fully remote, such as systems, and will stay that way because their roles do not require them to interact with others in the bank, like associates with operations-driven positions.
Part of the formal plan expected to launch by summer will include information on who and how associates can participate in virtual meetings.
“We want to formalize it in our guidelines, so everybody knows what those standards are,” she said.
Guidelines also will include expectations from a productivity standpoint. She counts the business fortunate as managers have been able to maintain and manage productivity in this virtual world.
“The work is getting done whether here or at home, (so) let’s keep it going,” she said.
Maravilla added that, just because some associates are working remotely, they still are required to follow bank policy.
“That part doesn’t change,” she said.
Guidelines in development
Cynthia Roberts, dean of the School of Business and Economics at Indiana University Northwest, said surveys by some of the big firms show that employees prefer the option to work remotely.
“This is here to stay,” she said. “There’s a whole workforce interested in doing remote work.”
Roberts resources for employers are beginning to address how best they can integrate the dynamic successfully into their culture. Setting clear policies is an important first step moving forward for those who have yet to do so.
Bosses and managers need to be proactive to ensure expectations are set for all employees and procedures are in place to ensure fairness, Roberts said. Guidelines are emerging to help businesses establish a policy that works for them whether all associates work remotely or in a hybrid work and in-person model.
People tend to be more casual working from home. Expectations about dress code, how phones are answered and even home office appearance need to be clear.
Employers have long set up policies for workplace conduct. Those policies now need to be extended.
“The same expectations and standards for professional conduct have to be translated for those working remotely as well,” Roberts said.
It also is important for employers to cover expectations about availability for the good of employees but also to prevent running afoul of labor laws. Often when people work remotely, there is a notion that individual is always available.
Roberts said employers should make availability expectations clear.
Roberts said businesses that continue with remote or hybrid workplaces need policies that outline what is and what is not acceptable behavior while on the job. It also is important to have policies that address who may be eligible for remote work.
Conduct expectations for remote workers should not differ from those in the workplace. A general rule of thumb is: if you would not do it, or wear it, in the workplace, do not do it at home. If an employee would not smoke or eat during a workplace meeting, the same holds true for working remotely.
“It’s no different. You do have to make that explicit,” Roberts said. “If you wouldn’t do it at your normal workplace, you shouldn’t do it at home.”
Need for accountability
Natalie Shrader, partner with Burke, Costanza and Carberry in Merrillville, said tracking productivity is an important part of dealing with remote workers. It can be difficult to balance between monitoring employee productivity at work while also respecting an employee’s privacy rights.
Another challenge is determining which employees or positions are able to work successfully from a remote location.
“Ideally when an employee becomes a remote employee, human resources personnel will meet with the employee and go over each policy specifically relevant to remote workers and answer any of the remote employee’s questions,” Shrader said.
After the meeting, the human resources representative should provide the employee with a copy of these policies, and ask them to sign a statement verifying they were trained in the remote work policies, all their questions were answered and they understand the policies.
Confidentiality also is one of the most important things to consider in a remote-work situation.
“Written policies should be in place, and employees should be trained on best practices to prevent inadvertent disclosure of confidential information,” she said. “A social media policy should also be in place to guide employees regarding proper and improper social media postings, emails and other electronic communications.”
A good start is to implement policies about safeguarding information and electronic communications. These policies should address: confidentiality of company and client information; privacy; internet usage and electronic communications; employee use of personal devices for business purposes; lost, stolen, hacked or damaged equipment; and social media usage.
Policies specifically addressing remote work also should be adopted. They should address who is eligible to work remotely, the procedure for requesting approval to work remotely and the conditions of an authorized remote-working arrangement.
Employee and employer responsibilities should be detailed. Those responsibilities should include:
- Work hours, recording work hours, accessibility during work hours, frequency and timing of communications with the employee’s supervisor;
- Safeguarding employer-client confidential information;
- Remote workspace requirements and set up;
- Productivity expectations and monitoring;
- Basic expectations regarding meeting attendance;
- Equipment, furnishings and office supplies; workers’ compensation;
- Conditions and expectations in the use of employer equipment, and using secure remote access procedures.
Other issues to address include tech support; equipment provided and maintained by the employer; and expenses reimbursed by the employer.
“Employers should handle virtual employee company violations consistent with the employer’s discipline and conduct policies and past practices,” Shrader said.
Isaac Carr, CEO and founding partner of CCSK Law in Valparaiso, said establishing policies help define what a business is trying to accomplish by laying out clear expectations and accountability when someone fails to meet those expectations.
“It’s not anything terribly different than you see in person, it’s just easy to forget about that,” Carr said.
Employers need to make sure they are adaptive.
Some policies may have to be very specific to virtual such as what meeting platform to use and how to use it properly. Offices that work virtually should have a consistent platform and not leave employees to determine what to use.
Guidelines also should be set for how employees are represented in the meetings, including entering their names or phone numbers, attire, backgrounds and whether they can turn video off.
“Oftentimes we are not bringing clients into a personal home when we have meetings. We want to take them into a professional setting,” Carr said.
Regardless of the policies put in place, owners and managers need to enforce them across the board to ensure all employees are aware of expectations.
“Consistency is important,” Carr said.
Click here to read more from the June-July 2022 issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.