Having employees work from home doesn’t remove legal considerations for employers
Like it or not, employers have been pushed into the world of remote work. Before COVID-19, technology had been allowing more employees to work from home and many employers were adopting, or at least considering, the practice of permitting some employees to work from home for at least part of the week, if not most of the time.
When the pandemic hit and physical distancing became necessary, remote work went from a trend to involving nearly all employees for some companies. Offices became ghost towns, home workspaces became the norm, and online virtual meetings became a key method of conducting business and engaging employees. And it also brought into sharper focus the obligations employers have when it comes to employees working remotely.
After more than two months, many workers are settling into the work-from-home routine. And with the uncertainty surrounding how long it will last and what returning employees to the workplace will look like, this whole situation may have established a new reality going forward that employees may not want to change.
A recent Canadian survey found that 45 per cent of workers preferred to work remotely in the long term.
And a separate poll of more than 1,400 workers across Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. found that one in five workers would prefer to continue working from home full-time after the pandemic, with more than 90 per cent wanting to work from home for some part of the workweek.
For many employers, now that it’s been proven they can operate with remote workers, it will be hard to scale back from that. But having employees work remotely, whether it’s for part of the week or full-time, doesn’t remove certain legal considerations for employers.
For employees working remotely, basic employment standards still apply with regards to work hours, overtime, and the definition of work. However, sometimes when employees work from home, the workday can be more fluid and, without the bookends of commuting each day, time spent working could slide beyond normal work hours. Employers should stay in touch with remote employees to ensure they’re sticking to regular hours and aren’t working unpaid overtime. It can also be tempting for employees to check email or make business calls outside of normal work hours — which can add up to not just overtime, but also overtaxed employees if the extra time spent working isn’t made up elsewhere.
Ultimately, employers should keep lines of communication with their remote workers open to keep up-to-date on what they’re doing as well as keep them engaged.
It’s also a good idea for employers to be aware of the health and safety circumstances for remote employees. In principle, an employee working from home should have safety and security conditions similar to what they have in the workplace. If they don’t, it may be something the employer has to address, though likely to a lesser extent than if the employee was at the workplace over which the employer has control.
Jurisdictions differ on whether occupational health and safety legislation applies to remote work, but there’s no doubt a healthy and safe employee is a productive employee. Obviously, if an employee is injured or develops a condition that affects their ability to do their job, it doesn’t matter from a productivity standpoint where they do their work. Legally, workers’ compensation could be in play when an employee is injured performing work away from the workplace.
COVID-19 has radically changed where many people do their work. It remains to be seen how things will look once the pandemic passes, but it’s likely that an increased amount of remote work for a significant proportion of employees — and the lessons employers have learned about it — is here to stay.