WFH? Accommodating staff in a remote workforce

Lorenzo Lisi, partner at Aird & Berlis, on Canadian concerns in 2021

WFH? Accommodating staff in a remote workforce

As more employers continue to allow their people to work from home, questions are still arising over how far organizations should go in accommodating and protecting staff.

HRD spoke to Lorenzo Lisi, partner at Aird & Berlis, who revealed concerns Ontario businesses are voicing in 2021.

“Employers who have staff working from home have had to think more closely about four key areas:  statutory compliance (such as hours of work and workers’ compensation); productivity and accountability; security and confidentiality; and possible accommodation. If they don’t already, your work at home polices should address all of these issues,” explained Lisi.

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“In terms of statutory compliance, given that there is little direct supervision of work, it should be made clear what the standard hours of work are and the processes for working and claiming overtime. For example, will overtime require pre-authorization? What if an employee works hours well in excess of those which are expected?”

Lisi also explained that the rise of home offices means there’s the possibility that an injury sustained while working at home could be eligible for a claim under applicable workers compensation legislation. To avoid these issues, Lisi recommended employers clearly define the ‘workplace’ while an employee is at home.

With respect to performance and accountability, Lisi told HRD that while some employers are using tracking software to address productivity, most employers are opting for an approach which emphasises keeping in touch with employees and being vigilant in following up on performance issues.

He suggests using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Hangout and Zoom to check in with employees regularly, which not only assists in dealing with productivity issues, but can also lessen the isolation that comes with not being in the office with staff and colleagues.

One critical problem for employers with home workers is that of data security and compliance with IT protocols.

“One main issue of contention right now is data security,” he told HRD. “This is by and large the biggest threat that employers have to mitigate – no one wants to have to deal with a cyberattack in the middle of a pandemic. I’d also suggest clear protocols and training with respect to cybersecurity.  Employers should make sure employees understand the risks and use best practices. Password security, phishing emails and document confidentiality are all critical and data or security breaches can mean possible liability and significant effort to follow up and try and remedy.”

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And finally, work at home employees may raise the obligation to accommodate, particularly with when they have childcare obligations.

Lisi told HRD that in Ontario employees are permitted unpaid leave to deal with childcare issues, when the child or elder needs rise beyond a mere request for time off – and there could be an obligation to accommodate under human rights legislation on the basis of family status. 

Accommodating employee needs could include allowing employees to work flexible or alternate hours, or even reduced hours of work. Employers must be prepared to separate requests of for time off due to the pandemic to a request for accommodation. Don’t forget, as in all things, documentation is key to the process.

“It is complicated,” continued Lisi. “There’s no playbook for a pandemic. However, clear and open communications and a commitment to a flexible approach are they ways to maintain the workplace culture, while upkeeping productivity and accountability.”

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