Lessons Learned: Designing the Workplace After The Pandemic

Office - Designing the Workplace After The Pandemic - Maine SBDCBy Tina Oddleifson

The third in a series of blog posts on lessons learned by small businesses throughout Covid 19

As more pandemic restrictions are lifted and a return to normal operations is in reach, employers and employees are both wondering what the new normal will look like. 

The question on everyone’s mind is, “what will the workplace look like after Covid 19?”

Are remote working and flexible schedules here to stay?

The last 15 months forced many small business owners and employees to re-imagine how they work.  The surprising result was that productivity didn’t suffer and even improved in some cases.  Without office interruptions and travel time, workers found they could produce results and have more time for personal activities.

But is the work from home model wearing thin and is there value in the small interpersonal exchanges that happen when a workplace is shared? Does time spent commuting offer important space to decompress and process information?  Or will remote work options be an important way to recruit and retain good employees?

In a survey conducted by PwC in January of 2021, results showed that employees are expecting more remote work options going forward than employers are planning to give. A survey conducted by McKinsey & Co showed increased worker burnout and anxiety that is partially fueled by the lack of communication from employers about the future of work.  Some experts believe that even a hybrid work solution will have its limitations.

Whether remote work options are right for your business will depend on your operations and employee expectations.  Some positions are suitable for remote work and others aren’t.  Some employees thrive on remote work while others find it difficult.  

What is most important is that you design a policy for your business that is fair and transparent to everyone and follows wage, anti-discrimination and worker safety laws.

Develop a Remote Work Policy

When drafting an employment policy for your business it’s always best to consult with a lawyer or HR expert.  The following topics are important to consider before jumping in.

Job Duties

Job duties are obviously an important factor when determining if an employee can work remotely. If they need direct supervision or have responsibilities that require them to be in a specific location, then remote work is not a good fit. Whether a position is exempt or non-exempt from state and federal overtime laws is also an important consideration. Allowing non-exempt workers to be remote will require clearly defined rules and expectations when it comes to working hours and breaks.

Employee Tenure or Experience

Whether an employee is new to the job, profession or organization will also be a factor when deciding on remote work options. New employees who lack work experience usually need more interactions with their supervisor and colleagues.  Experienced or longer-term employees may need less of this.  

Personality and Work Motivation

Some employees thrive and are more productive while working remotely, while others find the lack of structure and personal interaction stressful.  The motivation for work itself can also impact whether remote work makes sense. For example, some exempt employees tend to be highly efficient and focused so they can leave work to enjoy other activities. Others see work and career as the center of their life and prefer to be in the office for longer hours. There is no one-size-fits-all model, so be sure to listen to your employees to determine if remote work is best for them. 

Legal Considerations

When it comes to developing a remote or flexible work policy be sure you are in compliance with labor, anti-discrimination and safety laws.

Wage and Overtime Laws

If you allow non-exempt workers to work remotely, be sure to clearly address how they record their work hours.  Develop a policy that off-the-clock work is prohibited and employees must ask for permission before working overtime.  Be clear about when employees are expected to answer emails or phone calls, and be sure you understand your responsibilities under Maine law when it comes to employee rest breaks.

Anti-discrimination Laws

When drafting an employee policy or managing remote workers, be sure you are fair and transparent and are not violating state and federal anti-discrimination laws. If, for example, more women work from home than men you must support each group equally and offer the same opportunities for advancement.  You are also still required to offer reasonable accommodations for disabled workers when it comes to remote work.  

Worker Safety

Employers should be aware that employees’ safety is still their responsibility when an employee works from home.  Check with your insurance company and OSHA about ways to reduce risk for employees.

Other Considerations

Besides legal considerations, be clear about your expectations when it comes to issues like response time and availability; productivity and performance measures; reimbursement for business expenses and equipment; and rules related to cybersecurity and confidential information.  If you plan to hire employees who will work remotely from a different state, you will need to understand all the applicable state labor and tax laws that will come into play.

Remote work options are likely to play a larger role in the workplace than before the pandemic.  Developing a remote work policy that fits your business will help you address issues before they arise. Be sure to speak to an employment lawyer if you are not clear about your responsibilities under state and federal law. 

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