Work from home can mean better work-life balance, but employers should be careful when those flex hours start to add up
Working from home has become the reality for a large number of workers. The necessity of the practice has been clear during the pandemic to help avoid the spread of COVID-19 and it will continue for some time until the spread is minimized and it’s safe for people to be out and about on a regular basis.
Over the several months, employers have had the time to adjust to work from home and iron out the kinks. Now that things should be flowing smoothly for many workers, what does it mean when COVID-19 is over?
The remote work experience in 2020 has fostered a sentiment among many workers that they want to continue it in some way going forward, whether full-time or at least part of the time. And many believe that the experience of working during the pandemic has changed the way we work permanently.
Many people are finding advantages to working from home, such as better work-life balance, more time saved by not commuting, flexibility during the workday, and being comfortable in their own spaces. But there are disadvantages too. People can become isolated without the daily personal interaction with co-workers. Employers may find it difficult to keep employees engaged from a distance. And while video conferencing is a big help by allowing face-to-face interaction with team members, it isn’t really a replacement for in-person interaction.
And there is a particular aspect of remote work of which employers should be cautious. Remote work allows for flexibility where employees may not limit their workday to the standard work hours — which could be fine in most cases if their work is spread out. But working from home also means employees are in close proximity to their work tools and equipment all the time. When someone doesn’t have to start the commute home, it can be tempting to keep going for a while. Maybe they have a heavy workload on their mind and feel spending a couple of hours on it at night or during the weekend will help relieve it.
A recent survey seems to show this practice is becoming common, with 55 per cent of remote workers say they have been working on weekends while one-third are putting in more than eight hours per day.
A commitment to and ownership of assigned work is an admirable quality — sometimes it seems the willingness to accept responsibility is lacking in general society — and it’s something employers like to see from their staff. However, there are potential liabilities.
While on its surface remote work can help improve work-life balance, that can change if employees are tempted to or feel they have to work more, just because it’s convenient. Extra hours are extra hours, no matter the location, and too many can lead to liability for overtime pay.
There have been numerous employment standards-related legal actions — most notably multiple class-action lawsuits against various financial institutions on behalf of thousands of employees — related to unpaid overtime where employees went ahead and worked overtime because they felt they had to in order to get their work done. In most cases, this meant long hours in offices, and it’s even easier to do so for people who are already at home working while the clock ticks away.
In addition, if adding to the work hours at home increases overtime liability, the long-term effects on the employees themselves could shift the work-life balance back the other way. When the line between work and home life blurs — always a risk when the workspace part of the home space — the balance could suffer.
There are health and safety considerations as well. Usually, employers can provide ergonomic equipment in the office, such as comfortable and supportive chairs and large, raised computer screens. But workspaces at home often don’t measure up, especially if the employer doesn’t provide support for acquiring ergonomic equipment for the home workspace.
An employee working long hours hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table is likely going to negatively affect the employee’s physical state and potentially lead to injuries and time off work — perhaps even a workers’ compensation claim.
Ultimately, it’s best practice for employers to keep connected to their remote workers, especially when work from home is not only stretching out as the pandemic continues, but becomes a likely long-term practice for many workers.
That way, they can keep up-to-date on how employees are doing, mitigate any potential liabilities — both legal and otherwise — and maintain the balance.