The hybrid workplace: separate but equal

Employers should remember there are liabilities and obligations no matter where people work

The hybrid workplace: separate but equal

One year. On the surface, it can seem like a long time. But often, it can feel like 12 months can pass in the blink of an eye. Especially when there’s a global pandemic that has radically changed — and in many instances shut down — life as we know it.

It’s been one year since COVID-19 began spreading across the globe, causing lockdowns just about everywhere. It’s been a different reality during that time due to the swift and significant changes wrought on social and professional lives.

One of the biggest changes has been the shift to remote work for numerous workers, which has changed the way many businesses operate. It also many have permanently changed how many will operate in the future, in a post-pandemic society.

Before the pandemic, technology and an emphasis on work-life balance was fuelling a rise in telecommuting and it was already on the radar of many employers. Now that it’s become part of the new normal, its prominence likely isn’t going away anytime soon, even after the bulk of the population is vaccinated against COVID-19. A few months into the pandemic, many workers were happy with the shift to remote work and many employers were looking at making it a permanent option, where possible.

While many employers have found productivity hasn’t suffered, there are concerns about the long-term viability of having employees primarily work from home. As a result, many are looking at some sort of hybrid workplace going forward, where there would be some employees in the office and some working from home or a combination of the two.

Work at home liabilities

As in any workplace situation, employers have to be aware of liability issues that may come with a hybrid workplace. Clear policies are important, but when some employees are in the physical workplace and some are at home, consistency and fairness are considerations.

Take, for example, health and safety. Employers have a legal obligation to protect employees from risks to their health and safety in the workplace. This obligation is pretty clear in the physical workplace, but it gets a little fuzzy when employees are working from home. Health and safety liability can vary depending on the jurisdiction — some include home offices in the definition of “workplace” and some don’t. Some public health bodies across Canada have developed guidelines and recommendations that don’t have legal force but could be considered “reasonable precautions” to ensure employee health and safety, so it’s a good idea to follow them.

Another safety issue that is more likely to go undetected by employers with remote workers is workplace harassment. It’s easy for something to be “out-of-sight, out-of-mind,” but if harassment is happening among remote workers, its negative effects may soon not be so “out-of-mind.” Employers would be wise to ensure they’re doing their best to protect remote workers from harassment as they are those in the physical workplace.

Remote workers also bring extra security concerns for company equipment and data. Employers are better able to protect both on their own premises, but when it’s out in the world, it gets a lot more difficult. Data protection and security policies should be clear and enforced, and equally applied wherever employees are working. Holding remote employees and in-person employees to the same security standard can help employers keep their stuff secure.

Many employers have been operating over the past year with a good portion of their workers getting things done at home. For those that may be considering continuing that at a certain level through a hybrid workplace, it will be important to ensure that those who aren’t directly in the office aren’t forgotten.

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