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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Telecommuting During COVID-19

In the time of the Coronavirus Pandemic, everyone has had to get used to things being a little bit different than the day to day norm. So many beloved institutes are temporarily closed, gearing up to open with strict guidelines in place. People are slowly going back to work, and children are finishing up the year with distance learning. But with some industries unable to safely comply with the new distancing guidelines, there is the question of whether those who have moved to telecommuting for the duration of the state instituted lockdown are going to remain working from home, and if so, whether it is a temporary change or the new face of employment.

With the current state of affairs, the phrase ‘working from home’ has been replaced with ‘telecommuting,’ the difference in the two being that the latter now stands for salaried or contracted employees working full time from a remote location which should be treated as a branch of the institute, whereas the previous is now being seen as those specialized, short term closures. Employers should have the same (if modified) policies, securities, and infrastructures, extended to employees as there would be in the traditional office or workspace setting. As industries explore this option, many for the first time, several questions have been raised.

  1. How will companies adhere to confidentiality and security measures?
  2. Will this lead to a potential real estate downfall in the commercial sector?
  3. How will hours and work product be tracked, and the ‘office’ taken home?
  4. And what does it mean for those working with accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

As a company moving forward, the strongest options would be to reevaluate your current policy and set forth a temporary Coronavirus edition, specializing in whether you will be going forth through telecommuting or moving to reduced hours as the nation reopens, slowly but surely.

Addressing the first question, employees should continue to adhere to the policies set in place to uphold security and confidentiality. Private systems, passwords, no sharing of proprietary information – there would just be a matter of access being granted to individual systems, whose setup should imitate the infrastructure of the main branch. In the instance of sharing work product and internal documents, finding a secure means of sharing is key. Whether it is setting up a password protected cloud-esque system or rotating pick up and drop off times for paper files, each company must tailor their policy to their needs.

Like many past pandemics and market crashes, the question of real estate value and availability comes to the forefront. The future is unclear for many as they reevaluate operating funds, operational capacity, and their current status. For some, telecommuting has worked in their favor and the decision to move to it permanently is in contemplation, for others, maintaining a brick and mortar location is no longer feasible with the hit they have taken. The steady supply and demand of commercial locations is in limbo, leading to plenty of what ifs. For some it would be a matter of weighing the number of employees they have against the space they have, whether six feet separation and one-way directional aisles is feasible on top of the regular rents in comparison to their current profit margins. If it becomes a question of moving to telecommuting, it would be the cost of the equipment and software needed to kit out their employees against the profit margins.  Should this become the chosen option of the many, commercial real estate supplies are going to soar with the diminished need. If a company has a large commercially leased space, but are only allowed to operate at twenty-five percent capacity, it becomes a balancing act of the known versus the unknown, traditionality versus current times. To operate at the reduced workforce and with any changes that would need to be made, it may be more reasonable to continue with telecommuting.  In respect to smaller companies, industry dependent, some may find telecommuting to be a choice they have to make as well. With multimillion-dollar companies like Facebook™ announcing that they’re considering moving fifty percent of their workforce to telecommuting, one must consider the smaller companies and how this pandemic has affected and will continue to affect them. Would they be able to continue in a storefront or office space if they’re drastically restricted on how many customers and clients they could see, particularly in peak seasons like the upcoming summer? If they are in the position to create a backup online presence or to have employees telecommute where they can serve without limitation, would this be something for any company, no matter the size, to consider?

Moving the office to an individual’s home can broach questions of tracking productivity and professionalism. Like with working from location as opposed to remotely, an employee would be required to track their hours and their breaks. While the daily dress code may not be as strict, it would be easy to set a ‘dress code’ in the COVID/telecommuting policy book handling visual interaction between employees and clients during video conferencing. As for productivity, an employee that doesn’t spend hours a week commuting to and from the office is likely to increase their work product as they take advantage of that extra time. With school being done via distance learning, another concern is how telecommuting would work in a household with children. State plans to move forward with the opening of childcare centers and programs would allow for the care of the children while the parents work.

Given that telecommuting is considered working from a remote location, all aspects of the American’s with Disabilities Act would continue to be applicable. So long as the accommodations are not unreasonably burdensome, employers must comply and provide for their employees. In telecommuting, that could mean providing specialized software or office equipment. To not do so could result in potential claims and investigations of the employer and fines.

As with anything else in the current state of affairs employment and the future of the brick and mortar office are up in the air, forcing all parties to face an unprecedented learning curve. It will be hard work and stumbling, but together, we as a state and community will move forward.

By Courtney Garrity, Paralegal


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