Before the pandemic hit, remote work was, in most cases, a thing of the future. Concern about the productivity of remote workers caused many employers to resist these arrangements. Employees, they thought, would rather be taking care of laundry or kids than taking care of their duties. Enter Covid-19 – and most employers around the world were left without a choice: life threw remote work upon them and it became—in most instances—their only alternative. More than one year of telehealth, work-from-home and virtual meetings later, they have survived and, to the surprise of some, productivity in many cases has improved. It might seem, then, that remote work is here to stay, at least for non-patient facing roles.
But…is it? As vaccination rates go up and transmission rates go down, employers around the country are debating whether to bring employees back to the workplace or allow them to keep working remotely. And, whatever option they choose, two things hold true: employers will navigate uncharted waters and employees—if they get called back—will not return to the workplace they once knew. In this decision-making process, questions inevitably will arise. Will all (or only some) employees be required to return to the workplace? Will they be there for the full workweek or will they have a reduced in-person schedule? Must those who return be fully vaccinated? If not, will employers provide incentives to those who are? Will employers accept lack of childcare as a reason to permit remote work? Will out-of-state work be acceptable? What tax liabilities, if any, does that create?
While there is no right, wrong or definite answer to many of these questions, employers embarking the “getting back to normal” ship need to consider them. Choosing either to go back to the workplace or to stay remote—if not done with the appropriate knowledge and planning—may result in unintended discriminatory practices and unfortunately entail the risk of claims. And, while we have some guidance from federal and state agencies on what’s legal and what’s not, best practices will always depend on each employer’s circumstances, structure and employee roles.
So, what should employers do? First, understand their and their employees’ needs. Can they support fully remote work for all or certain positions? Do they want to? Would a hybrid model work best? Do they want to maintain robust telehealth offerings? Will remote work–including with out of state employees–help recruit and retain non-patient facing workers? Second, evaluate if they have in place all policies required to implement their return-to-work (or stay-remote- or hybrid) strategy. Do their policies and practices appropriately address all issues? Will employees feel safe going back into the workplace? Is their remote work policy current? If not, their third step is to create and/or modify internal policies and procedures to best suit their post-pandemic workplace, whatever it may look like. Hot topics to include and/or review are vaccination rules, programs and/or incentives, employee leaves—whether pandemic related or not—, anti-discrimination policies and change communication strategies.
Whatever you decide your post-pandemic workplace will look like, we’re here to help. Please reach out to your Jackson Lewis attorney who can provide additional best practices and resources as we navigate these challenges together.