The new working day: how to manage employees working from home

March 27, 2020
FCB Workplace Law

Working from home is no longer a luxury or a strategy for many Australians: with the onslaught of COVID-19, it has now become a necessity. For employers who have been able to figure out a way for some or all of their employees to work from home over the next few weeks, are you ready to manage the challenges that a remote workforce brings?

Here are some key considerations for businesses who will have employees working from home:

Do they have the right resources?

For employees who may never have previously worked from home, many may not have the requisite tools and equipment to perform their duties remotely. It is vital that before employees are sent to work from home, an assessment is undertaken of what they will need to be productive and safe.

We have to look at this factor from three perspectives:

  • Environmental: does the employee have the right furniture, including a desk and a back-supporting office chair? A footrest, if necessary? The correct lighting to avoid eye strain? Employees planning to work from dining tables or kitchen counters can be an ergonomic nightmare that could end in workers compensation claims and sick leave. For a worker spending potentially eight to ten hours seated in that position, the right furniture is pivotal.
  • Hardware: does the employee have all of the equipment necessary to perform their role? This might include a video camera, speakers or graphics tablets, depending on the duties required. For employees who have laptops, consider providing them with a monitor, keyboard and mouse from the office: not only will it be healthier for the employee to use long-term, but likely more productive as well. For employees without company phones, you may be obligated to reimburse them for the cost of using their own mobile plans, subject to the applicable industrial instrument and nature of the employee’s role.
  • Software: some programs or applications may only be available from the office, so you need to think about how you can ensure all of your employees have the software they need to work from home. While data security is still important, you may have to change some of your procedures to allow employees access to internal servers or files or implement a remote desktop service. Also consider what additional programs you may need to offer, such as instant messaging services and video conferencing for employees to keep in contact with their managers and their clients. Do you need to upgrade your subscriptions to allow multiple users at once? How will you pay for software that employees have individually purchased for their own devices?

Have you implemented your work from home policies and procedures?

Just because the world is in turmoil does not mean that employers no longer have a duty of care to their staff. With employees’ homes becoming their new workplaces, the business is liable for any illnesses or injuries that the employee may suffer when working from home, meaning that the workers compensation claims can…and will still arise. And unlike your offices and stores and factories, you don’t have direct oversight over homes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to ensure they are as safe as possible, such as:

  • Implementing a work from home policy, if you don’t already have one, which sets out your expectations of your employees to work safely and report all hazards and incidents as they would in their normal workplace.
  • Require employees to undertake a workplace assessment checklist before they commence working from home, which includes identifying and remedying any hazards, taking photos of their workspace for your records, and confirming their fire evacuation plans.
  • Providing employees with ergonomic equipment where it is identified that their own equipment may be unsafe for long-term use.
  • Encouraging regular stretching and/or walks.
  • Conducting periodic check-ins with your employees to identify developing health problems and monitor hazards.

Have you set reasonable expectations?

An employee’s productivity when working from home is not the same as working from the office: there’s too many different variables. And this may not be a bad thing: many employees are more productive when working from home, as they are less distracted by their colleagues. But in such a difficult time, where employees will likely be worrying about money, food, health and childcare, their productivity may lessen, and employers need to ensure that any goals or expectations they set are reasonable.

This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. It does not excuse poor performance, misconduct, missing check-ins or meetings without reasonable explanation, or taking unauthorised days off. But it may mean that businesses have to adjust their expectations to the context that surrounds us. For example, sales employees likely won’t meet their usual targets in the near future, as a result of many businesses closing, not being able to meet leads face-to-face, and a general downturn in the economy. But this doesn’t mean the employee isn’t doing their job. For other employees, closed schools and/or childcare centres means that they are having to juggle family and work responsibilities: while this would normally be a big no-no for working from home arrangements, it may be unavoidable. Can you give your staff the flexibility they need to manage their family and their role, perhaps by allowing them to start work earlier and take more regular breaks? What can you do to support them and your business through these challenging times?

Are you keeping an eye on your employees’ mental health?

Employees working in the essential services industries, such as healthcare, education and grocery retailing, are undoubtedly feeling the strain, and it is vital that employers of these workers have the resources and strategies in place to foster mental health and address mental illness. With the weight of a nation on their backs, a supportive employer will make all the difference.

As for other types of businesses, one of the biggest health issues anticipated to arise from the mass self-isolation directives is an increase in poor mental health as a result of reduced socialisation, feelings of fear and being overwhelmed, less exercise and general uncertainty about their future.

Consider what you can do to support your employees’ mental health and monitor signs that a worker may not be doing so well. For example:

  • Organise daily team meetings to ensure your workforce remains connected, and don’t limit the discussions to work-related topics: include funny or positive anecdotes to keep the mood up. Use video conferencing where possible, as not only do employees feel a greater sense of connection where they can visually see their colleagues, but it also encourages them to get dressed, which can help maintain the work/personal-life distinction that often blurs when we perform both tasks in the same physical space (let’s face it: we’d all be in our pyjamas otherwise).
  • Encourage your employees to exercise, whether it’s by using the time they’d normally spend on their commute to go for a walk (while maintaining appropriate distancing), or scheduled stretching or yoga sessions with the team by video conference.
  • Ensure that your communications to your employees about COVID-19 are ‘calm but cautious’: while we need to be honest and realistic, these communications should not induce panic or fear.
  • Encourage employees to share personal hobbies, such as new recipes, photos of their creative works, or book recommendations. You may find that a company-based social media helps with such discussions, such as Yammer.
  • Remind employees of other confidential support that are available to them, such as employee assistance programs, Lifeline and Beyond Blue.

This unique situation won’t last forever, and employees will remember how their employers supported them through the difficult times. To provide caring but effective management on a remote basis that enables the business to function as close to normal as possible, while recognising the unique challenges and opportunities that working from home brings, requires strong leadership and a capability to adapt to changing situations.

For more information on managing working from home arrangements, contact Ceri Hohner, Associate, on 07 3046 2100, or Nick Tindley, Partner, on 03 9098 9400.