How to Handle More Work-from-Home Requests

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. May 5, 2020
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​As employers reopen their worksites, they are likely to face an influx of requests to start or continue telecommuting. Organizations need to follow consistent criteria in granting them.

About 3 percent of 1,000 HR professionals within the United States said that their salaried employees were working remotely when the year began. That number rose to 64 percent by April, according to the COVID-19 Business Index from SHRM and Oxford Economics.

"Many people are working from home for the first time," said Susan Eisenberg, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor in Miami. "Some really like it."

Kelly Hughes, a lawyer with Ogletree Deakins in Charlotte, N.C., said, "I truly think there has already been a paradigm shift, and telecommuting will no longer be seen as a workflex option reserved for the exempt employee."

Compliance Obligations

If remote-work policies weren't created when employees were sent home to telework, they should be now, said Jeffrey Smith, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Cleveland.

"Those policies should be instituted or modified to include transition plans that are consistent with state orders permitting employers to reopen," he said.

Make sure to comply with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act when responding to work-from-home requests—both its paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave provisions.

"Employers will be making hard decisions soon," said Alka Ramchandani-Raj, an attorney with Littler in Walnut Creek, Calif. "Employers should have justified reasons and documented explanations why certain job positions can be remote and why others require employees to work at company facilities."

Factors to Consider When Reviewing Requests

Employers should review legal and business factors as they're considering whether to grant requests to telecommute, Hughes added. She said those considerations should include whether the following apply:

  • The request to continue working from home is due to an issue related to the Americans with Disabilities Act, triggering the duty to discuss possible reasonable accommodations with the worker.
  • The employee has been able to meet expectations while telecommuting during the pandemic or, if not, performance issues can be managed remotely once the pandemic is no longer the company's primary focus.
  • Business needs have changed in a way that physical presence in the workplace is required.
  • The company has discovered that productivity has increased, and new methods of working have proven so effective that the company wants to encourage continuing remote work for those individuals who wish to do so.

Hughes added that a company also should consider how similar requests have been handled.

Eisenberg, of Cozen O'Connor in Miami, said these are the two best objective reasons for denying requests to telecommute:

  • The business needs of the company require that the person in the position work in the office.
  • Only those without disciplinary incidents may work from home.

Update job descriptions for positions that require working onsite, and note criteria such as the requisite experience needed to be eligible to work from home, recommended Donna Meek, professional employer organization (PEO) branch manager with Oasis, a Paychex Company and national PEO, in Dallas.

Telecommuting can be performed on a short-term basis, said Patricia Ogden, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. "Employers should clearly communicate the temporary nature of the arrangement given the COVID-19 situation and the company's recognition that some of the essential functions of the position will necessarily be removed during this limited time."

Employees' Reasons for Making Telecommuting Requests

Keep in mind employees' reasons for requesting to work from home.

These include:

  • Fear of contracting the virus and spreading it to family members.
  • Caring for children or sick family members.
  • Compliance with social distancing mandates.
  • Saving time on the commute.
  • Being more productive without constant interruptions.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Team Building

If telework lasts for several weeks or months, there will be fewer face-to-face interactions. While this is desirable to stop the spread of the coronavirus, it can pose team-building challenges. "Many businesses depend on relationship-building, which is harder, although not impossible, to do remotely," Eisenberg said.

With an increase in telework, more communications are sent through e-mail and text messages. "This can be a more informal means of communication," she explained, "and workers will have to be careful that their communications are not misconstrued."

"We will see fewer in-person meetings," said Denise Merna Dadika, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in Newark, N.J. "Instead, employees will communicate both internally and externally via videoconferencing and chat tools. Managers will need to conduct frequent check-ins with their teams to ensure their employees are engaged, supported and meeting expectations while working remotely."

Barnes & Thornburg's Ogden predicted that employers will experiment with telecommuting more in the short term but said there will be issues to evaluate, including how to maintain quick communication, measure productivity and address the potential loss of company culture.

Opportunities for Employers

Businesses nonetheless are starting to see opportunities from the rise in work-from-home requests.

Employers can more easily expand into new states or become a national company with remote workers, Meek said. Plus, they can hire where compensation is lower.

Another potential long-term benefit is the cost savings of reducing office space as leases expire.

For now, employers need to have enough square footage to properly space workstations so employees can comply with social distancing guidelines, Dadika noted. "Employers may be able to reduce the space dedicated to conference rooms and common-area spaces," she said.

Continued social distancing rules may require that employers open with a reduced staff onsite and remaining employees working from home, perhaps with some rotation of who works onsite.

An employer might designate some positions as permanently remote, Hughes said. Or employees in various positions might opt to work from home a certain number of days per workweek.

Hughes said that another option is to divide employees into teams, with one team working remotely while the other works onsite, and then the two teams switch. "Depending on the type of business, this has the potential of allowing a business to rent half the space it would need to keep everyone working onsite at the same time," she said.

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