Home sweet office

There's a lot for employers to consider with remote employees

Home sweet office

Home or the office – what’s better for work?

The pandemic really changed the way many see work and how it can be done. Hordes of workers did their jobs at home during this time and, while many have been returning to the physical workplace, many others haven’t. Some employers have realized that they can still accomplish what they want to with remote workers, while others have had employees who have gotten used to working at home resisting the return to the office.

A prominent news story lately has been the strike involving federal government workers who are members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). There are several issues of contention in the labour dispute, but one of them involves remote work policies. The government wants management to decide on remote work rules, but PSAC wants remote work agreements put into workers’ contracts. And many federal government workers who have been working happily and productively at home over the past three years don’t want to go back, just for the sake of saying that they’re back in the office.

Remote work can be great for workers who enjoy being in the comfort of their own homes and don’t have to worry about a grueling commute. But it can be challenging for managers – nearly half of managers said they were finding it more difficult to manage people remotely and nearly eight in 10 said they needed training on how to do their job better in hybrid and remote environments, according to a survey.

Hybrid work environments also seem to be all the rage, as a sort of compromise between the pro-office and pro-remote camps, but employers have to be careful that they don’t favour in-office workers, as that could lead to potential liability to accusations of unfairness or even discrimination. In fact, more than half of US adults believe employees who work exclusively in the office have a competitive advantage over colleagues who are fully remote, another survey found.

Of course, employers have concerns about what employees are doing when they’re not under the direct supervision of the boss in person. A survey spanning Canada, the US, and Australia from 2022 found that nearly one in four workers admit to slacking off while working at home. There are many potential distractions at home, so some employers resort to various methods of monitoring remote employees’ activity. But employers have to be careful of not going too far and violate employee privacy.

Usually, employees have a limited expectation of privacy when using work equipment such as laptops and cellphones, although it depends on the circumstances. Employers are generally free to monitor employees’ work email accounts and phone calls, but personal files on computers and webcam footage may have some protection. And when an employee is working from home, the expectation of privacy is higher, given that the workspace is located in a place where normally the employer should have no jurisdiction or knowledge.

However, despite the fact that a remote worker’s workspace in their own home, the employer could have some responsibility regarding health and safety. Some occupational health and safety legislation extends the duty of employees to the remote workspace, such as ensuring employees have the right ergonomic equipment and doing safety checks with the worker. Some provinces also consider domestic violence to be a workplace hazard and require employers to have plans for workers to report abuse to respond to such reports.

Employers still have certain legal obligations to remote employees, so the best way to address them all it to have a comprehensive remote work agreement – whether it’s automatically part of a collective agreement or an employment contract, or is tailored to an individual employee’s circumstances. Such an agreement can address health and safety issues, monitoring methods, and other elements, and help the worker understand expectations while giving the employer something to fall back on if discipline or dismissal becomes necessary.

However, once a remote work agreement is in place, it may be difficult to revoke or change it, particularly if it’s part of accommodation efforts. In a case several years ago, Service Canada was ordered to pay a worker $18,000 for dragging is heels on accommodating a worker with environmental hypersensitivity, particularly after supervisors who were against remote work ordered her to come into the office more than she was. This was contrary to the recommendations of the worker’s doctor and worsened her symptoms.

Remote work can be a plus for employers if workers remain productive and content with it, but it can also be contentious – as evidenced by the federal labour strife. But, as with in-person employees, employers have legal obligations and duties to employees scattered out in the world.

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