Step 3: Thriving in the Remote Era

A Career Track through COVID

How do employees fast forward when the world is on pause?

We have talked about how you get your remote workplace started (communication, training, navigating childcare issues) and how you thoughtfully set it up (handling reimbursements, understanding mental health issues). Today, we embark on a longer conversation about why we are really here: to make lemonade out of the lemon that is 2020. This venture is not without challenge, but it is also filled with opportunity. How do I know that? Look at all the companies that proactively went remote in recent days – some until 2021, some indefinitely. A commitment to #remotefirst is growing nationwide, and your employees should know that they can build a career at your company – even while at home.

Ownership Outside the Office

Compensation is but one factor in employee satisfaction, and is often focused on by employers at the expense of others. Especially during a pandemic, it seems that you need more than money to combat isolation, and feelings of disconnect, among your employees. In a series of studies conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, she found that “when employees feel a stronger sense of ownership, they are more inclined to engage in generally helpful behaviors.”[1] Employee ownership can come in many forms, and is often provided (or hoarded) by supervisors who have differing management styles. Now more than ever, you should train supervisors to seek out opportunities of ownership for their direct reports.

But herein lies the first challenge: how can you increase feelings of ownership in 2020? Being outside the office necessarily removes some opportunities. Take one example:

A company has a flat structure, with opportunities to climb the ladder few and far between. To increase feelings of ownership, the company encourages employees to join committees to plan charitable events, holiday parties, in-office celebrations, and more. After COVID-19, the company downsized its fundraising budget, and holiday parties became … illegal … so they downsized that budget, too.

What steps can you take to increase ownership? Consider implementing the following:

  • Provide 360 reviews, assessing both employees and their bosses. Look at the flow of work. Are certain supervisors – faced with the uncertainty of COVID – keeping work they would regularly delegate?
  • Encourage supervisors to reassess project management. Is a time zone mismatch (people do move around in a remote world) causing a bottleneck on the team? Is it time to break the team into smaller ones to provide a more productive video chat?
  • Establish new committees. Can the people who planned the annual potluck set up a virtual game night? Those skills are transferable!

Culture Without a Celebration

What is company culture? It should come as no surprise that, when done right, it’s a feeling, not a mission statement. Culture take years, maybe decades, to grow. Yet it is fragile, and fleeting; it can leave you quietly. When people talk about a good culture, they share warm stories of softball games, family gatherings, graduations, and vacations with colleagues who became friends; marriages and babies celebrated, and loved ones mourned together. To be sure, many of us miss those milestones (not to mention, free cake). But there is more to your culture than frosting and beer.

Your culture is defined by the people you welcome into your company and those you do not. Strive to hold onto that sense of what it means to be a “good fit” with your people. Continue to celebrate each other’s wins, and be there for the losses. Your colleagues are only a phone call or text message away.

What are some ways you can maintain your culture?

  • Interview as well as you did before. If you have built a culture to be proud of, maintain it. Ensure that candidates meet as many people as possible virtually.
  • Create a space for sharing. Do you have a newsletter? Can you interview an employee each week about their newest hobby, and share milestones such as birthdays, graduations, and marriages (yes, all are still happening!)
  • Provide opportunities to connect in real time. I was excited to see my firm create an opportunity for us to meet one-on-one, in Zoom breakout rooms, to catch up with colleagues in different practice areas.
  • Continue to be inclusive. Do you have staff uncomfortable being on video? Plan a week where everyone makes one phone call. Call it “phone a friend” or “timewarp.”
  • Use the COVID-19 crisis as an advantage. While it is difficult for any of us to imagine many positives to the pandemic, we can create some. Providing support means something different than it did last year. How can you be known for crisis management? What can you offer to struggling employees? See my last post on mental health for some insights.

Mentorship Without a Menu

Remember when you were a new employee, and somebody took you out to lunch? After fumbling with the menu (surely lobster is not appropriate!), you hopefully engaged in friendly banter about the weather, kids, that menu (an Old Fashioned does look good, but this isn’t 1957 … hah!), and of course, your future. Those planned conversations can spark organic mentorships.

Mentoring is critical to your culture, and to professional development. How can you foster mentorship in the new remote world? I think of mentoring when I read the book, “Are you my Mother?” to my children. In the book, a little bird aimlessly walks around town asking animals who are not birds if they are his mother. Of course, he is rejected (sometimes a bit harshly), and in a series of unfortunate events ends up in a power shovel. Thankfully, the power shovel drops him back into his nest and into the wings of his loving, though negligent, mother.

Like the little bird, a junior member of your team will think that their special person is just a question away. They will literally ask, “Will you be my mentor?” no matter the obvious lack of fit. Yet, this relationship must develop to be valuable. It cannot and should not result from a coordinated matching program, nor should it come from a random lottery of names. The best mentor-mentee pairs know two things:

  1. They aren’t each other’s only mentee or mentor
  2. They didn’t set out to be mentor-mentee

Now more than ever, you should make it your goal to foster relationships in your company. This is not the time to shelve opportunities for mentorship, but to increase them. Mentors can help tie a junior employee into a culture. Mentors can model ownership. But how can you enable the organic formation of these relationships remotely?

  • Check in versus Check on. Talk to your leaders. Are they reaching out to employees just to see how they are, or only on how their work is going? There is a difference, and employees notice. Encourage leaders to take a couple minutes out of their busy days to make time for more junior employees.
  • Use technology when shyness is an issue. Do you have a great leader who is not so great at small talk? Programs like the online platform Icebreaker can provide her with “conversation starters” if she wants to engage an employee for a video chat.
  • In a pinch, think about “cross-company” mentoring. In recent years, more companies are turning to mentorship programs outside their companies. While this set up is far from organic, some of these companies use a host of common interests to thoughtfully place mentees with mentors. If it’s your only option, it might be a morale boost for employees who seek wisdom and guidance during a difficult time.

[1] https://hbr.org/2015/12/how-to-make-employees-feel-like-they-own-their-work

Step 2 (cont.): Mental Health

Employees must feel well to do their jobs well. Since March, one of my amazing partners has reminded me: “On the plane, they tell you to put your mask on first before assisting others.” The same premise can be applied on the ground. In this week’s post, we will explore mental health trends, ADA law, and how reasonable accommodations may look radically different in a remote workplace. We will also give practical tips on how to better train managers and Human Resources to navigate accommodation requests with compassion and empathy.

Anxiety and Depression on the Rise

Four months have passed since your employees went home and stayed there. Since that time, the virus has spread, unemployment has soared, George Floyd was killed, and the economy has taken a dive like never seen in our (recorded) history. It should be no surprise that newly remote employees are worried about far more than how to stay focused when the television is right there. Today, remote employees are worried about their health, their family’s health, their job, and their community. They are worried for their lives and their children’s lives. They are worried about their Black friends and family. They are worried about the election. They are worried about how worried they feel all of the time. Sleeplessness, isolation, uncertainty, and a barrage of negative stories in the media contribute to an increase risk for suicide.[1]

Some employees may be more impacted than others. Employees who have undiagnosed mental health conditions. Employees who have managed mental health conditions their entire lives. Employees who live alone may feel especially isolated without the daily check-ins around the company’s coffee machine. Employees who are deemed at-risk for COVID-19 due to age or underlying conditions may be more like to suffer anxiety, hypochondriasis and agoraphobia. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, compared with White Americans, Black Americans are more likely to have concerns over job security during the pandemic.

The ADA and Mental Health

Last week, the American with Disabilities Act turned 30 years old. The Act, which covers employers with fifteen or more employees, prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. (So, too, do state and local laws, many of which apply to employers with just one employee). The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual:

  • a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;
  • a record of such an impairment; or
  • being regarded as having such an impairment.

The term “mental impairment” is broader than you may realize. EEOC uses as examples of mental impairment “emotional or mental illness[es]” “major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders (which include panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder), schizophrenia, and personality disorders.” 

As we anticipate mental health issues worsening, or perhaps springing from, this unprecedented era, employers must be careful to avoid claims of discrimination in their communication with and treatment of affected employees. Smaller employers are not necessarily exempt from claims: in a growing number of jurisdictions, including California, New York, and Illinois, state and city human rights statutes protect all employees from discrimination.

Navigating Mental Health Issues Remotely

Back in April, the EEOC published a series of FAQs about the ADA in the midst of COVID-19. Among other things, the EEOC stated that reasonable accommodations at home may be different than those needed at work, and that COVID-19 may result in “additional or altered” accommodations.

What can you do now to ensure a safe, healthy remote workforce?

Look for Signs

Train your staff to look for signs and symptoms of mental health struggles. Do not use the remote work environment as a way to invoke plausible deniability. For one thing, your employees are people. Caring about their mental health is not only good for your business, but also good for the world. Employees who suddenly disappear, fail to participate on virtual calls, or become angry or hostile in communications, might be in need of some help. Another point? Morale. People care to work for you when they feel you care about them. Reach out to your people.

Proactively Provide Access to Resources and Explanations of Benefits

Do you have an Employee Assistance Program? Ensure that your Human Resources group remind employees of the benefit, which provides confidential counseling to employees (often for no charge to the employee). Do you have a telehealth benefit covering mental health? Provide your employees with updated information. Additionally, California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island require employers to have short-term disability insurance for injuries, treatment, or continuing supervision. Depending on your policy, employees with mental health issues may qualify.

Engage in the Interactive Process

Just like pre-pandemic times, your Company must engage in the “interactive process” when faced with a request for an accommodation. As part of that process, “the employer may offer alternative suggestions for reasonable accommodations and discuss their effectiveness in removing the workplace barrier that is impeding the individual with a disability.”[1] While jurisdictions such as the Seventh Circuit has held that a medical leave with no planned end date may not be reasonable, an extended leave, perhaps tied to an event such as a vaccine, may be reasonable. Similarly, intermittent leave (where an employee takes periodic leaves of absence to receive care for and/or recover from a covered disability) may be reasonable.

Additionally, an employee who is suffering may not have the ability to ask for help – whether due to incapacity, anxiety, stigma, or fear of retaliation. The Seventh Circuit held in Bultemeyer v. Fort Wayne Community Schools that where the employee has mental disabilities, the communication process becomes more difficult and the employer must meet the employee halfway. Therefore, if the employee may need an accommodation but does not know how to ask for one, the employer should do what it can to help.

Avoid Unintentional Discrimination

The interactive process is flexible and requires that the employer in good faith work to accommodate the employee. You and your staff must assess each employee as an individual human being with unique issues. Additionally, you will need to assess your business needs.

Avoid comments such as, “It’s 2020 … we’re all going to have to just roll with it.” Not everyone can roll with things. Do you have an employee who started taking medication that makes her groggy in the morning? Perhaps the remote environment lends itself to her logging in at 10 am, rather than 8:30 am. Do you have an employee suffering from OCD? Perhaps he is unable to adjust to your new staggered work schedule that changes as much as the laundry. You can accommodate that particular employee by simply giving him back a routine.

As I will continue to say until I am blue in the face: communication is key – especially when we are apart. In 2020, your leadership must lead with empathy. It all starts with an open mind and a flexible culture.

If you are somebody you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


[1] Leo Sher, The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, , hcaa202, https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202

[2] https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/enforcement-guidance-reasonable-accommodation-and-undue-hardship-under-ada

Step 2: Getting Started

As you continue to set up your team for the long road ahead, do you have a handle on what they need, and who pays for it? Today, let’s talk reimbursements.

Review Your Obligations, Check Your Promises

Employers should look at IRS regulations, their state and city laws, as well as their own policies (check the handbook) and contracts (check the employment agreement) and retrain supervisors on how to field reimbursement requests.

Draft a (Better) Policy

You may have a reimbursement policy; you may not. Either way, now is time to draft a good one. A policy can void an old version that just does not make sense now that the world is upside-down … just ensure that you do not retroactively apply it in violation of your wage and hour laws.

The following jurisdictions already have reimbursement laws in place:

  • California
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Massachusetts
  • Montana
  • New York
  • Pennsylvania
  • Washington, DC

Your new policy must take care to focus on both your state laws and your business needs. Boilerplate language can spell financial disaster, especially where your state puts the onus on you to provide one or accept the consequences (a/k/a, the receipt) of a vague policy without parameters.

For example, in Illinois, employers must reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee within the employee’s scope of employment and directly related to service performed for the employer.” This blanket mandate can be supplemented by a policy that complies with Illinois law while restricting spending.

However, those without a policy have little room to avoid an expense where an employee purchased an item for the office at the direction of a supervisor, for example. In contrast, employers who have a written policy, such as requiring pre-approval, can refuse to reimburse an employee who does not comply. Employers concerned about a lagging accounts payable can require employees to submit invoices and/or receipts relatively promptly, though no sooner than 30 days after the expenditure.

Budget!

Which tools do remote workers need more of? Which tools have they lost? Beware of costs that may grow with your remote workforce. For example, as we change how and where we work, employers should expect more employees to request reimbursement for their cell phones. After all, it is unlikely that they took their landline from the office when they “went home for the weekend” back in March. It stands to reason that many are using their cell phones for all work-related phone calls. California Labor Code section 2802 reads similarly to Illinois, and California courts have ruled that necessary expenditures include cell phones. Stating that the “purpose of this statute is ‘to prevent employers from passing their operating expenses on to their employees,’ ” the court in Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, Inc. held that it does not matter whether the employee has a plan with unlimited or limited minutes:

“Does an employer always have to reimburse an employee for the reasonable expense of the mandatory use of a personal cell phone, or is the reimbursement obligation limited to the situation in which the employee incurred an extra expense that he or she would not have otherwise incurred absent the job? The answer is that reimbursement is always required. Otherwise, the employer would receive a windfall because it would be passing its operating expenses onto the employee. Thus, to be in compliance with section 2802, the employer must pay some reasonable percentage of the employee’s cell phone bill.”

Companies should expect to tackle sooner rather than later the challenge of determining what a reasonable percentage of an employee’s cell phone bill might look like, based on each employee’s role and usage. Additionally, if California precedent is a harbinger of things to come (spoiler alert: it always is), employers should expect that accounts on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other virtual platforms will be the employer’s to pay.  

So, like everything about this new world, remote work changes the landscape on reimbursement. It’s time to assess your policy, communicate any changes and budget for the future.

The bad news is that you may have to pay for things like cell phones, if they now serve as the office line. The good news is that your travel budget likely left you some wiggle room.  

Step 1 (cont.): COVID-19 and Kids

We’ll talk about a variety of issues to troubleshoot in a remote employment setting, but today, let’s talk about kids. As employers continue to work hard to set up virtual offices that help their employees thrive, the topic of children is also making the news. More specifically, what do to with them? As every working parent knows, children do not always respect boundaries. How do employers handle the fact that teleworkers may not be fully engaged during their regular workday, due to diaper changes, demands for snacks, or temper tantrums?

Introducing my new favorite portmanteau: Work from Homeschool. It’s a real thing, and companies must decide how to handle a phenomenon that is unique to COVID-19.

Understand the Laws

Not all employees may be able to work. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), a law passed in April in response to the pandemic, provides for up to twelve weeks of paid leave (capped at the greater of two-thirds of wages, minimum wage, or $12,000), for employees who are “unable to work due to a bona fide need for leave to care for a child whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.” This relief is subsidized by the federal government, with employers deducting qualifying leave from their federal employment tax liability.

FFCRA applies to private businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and some public employers. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for an exemption if the leave requirements would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” Parental leave is available to all employees who have been working for thirty days or more for an employer.

The Department of Labor has issued multiple FAQs on the act, which is in effect through December 31, 2020. As the world grapples with the effects of COVID-19 on children and community spread, I would expect that FFCRA will be extended or be replaced by other relief if school cannot reopen in the fall. It’s important to loosely understand its offerings, and provide notice to your employees of the same.

In addition to the new FFCRA, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) continues to enforce Title VII and its prohibition on sex discrimination. Recent EEOC guidance reminds us that “employers may provide any flexibilities as long as they are not treating employees differently based on sex or other EEO-protected characteristics. For example, under Title VII, female employees cannot be given more favorable treatment than male employees because of a gender-based assumption about who may have caretaking responsibilities for children.”

Go Back to the Basics: Communicate

There will be employees who can and want to do the Work from Homeschool thing without taking leave. Before you decide on how you will react to their proposal, consider:

  • Are employees with children struggling?
  • If some are, what do they need? Is it time, space, quiet, something else?
  • Do certain employees need to be on the phone or video during the day?
  • Can you be creative so that employees may do their work in unconventional ways, or during “off” hours?
  • Are your supervisors consistent in how they react to employee’s requests regarding childcare?
  • Have supervisors received training on bias, including benevolent bias?

You want to anticipate these issues before you take any alleged adverse action against employees. Recently, a former employee of Hub International alleged that the company terminated her due to her children making noise in the background of calls. The employee claims that her supervisor reprimanded her by telling her “The kids could be heard on business calls with clients. It’s unprofessional” and to “to take care of” her “kid situation.” The employee, who sued both the company and her supervisor, further alleged that she had endured “sexist statements” from her supervisor, who was “motivated by a clear bias against mothers.” We’ll be watching to see how this case unfolds.

One final note: while treating everyone the same is generally a good thing when it comes to a claim of discrimination, it is not without risk. In late June, Florida State University communicated to all employees via email that the University would revert back to its “normal policy” that does not allow workers to care for children. The email came as COVID-19 cases were rapidly rising in Florida. Needless to say, the communication caused panic and a widely publicized backlash. In July, the University clarified that workers are not prohibited from caring for children, but may have to work with their supervisor to develop alternative remote schedules or, in cases with inflexible hours, to request leave: “We want to be clear – our policy does allow employees to work from home while caring for children.”

These are not normal times, so it’s acceptable to have lot of questions. As you’ll repeatedly hear from me, now more than ever, you should keep the lines of communication open, fostering a dialogue between employees, supervisors, and human resources, when it comes to childcare concerns and so much more.

Step 1: The Set Up

You may be new to remote employment, or you might have dabbled in it in the past. Pre-pandemic, many offices had a couple of people who worked from home. Today, remote employment has a new look. More people want it – and more people need it.

Depending on where you live, this arrangement may be just as much for the company’s benefit as it is for the employee. After all, unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetime, this crisis grows with the help of people. In the COVID-19 era, keeping people away from others is rather sad, but also, rather important.

The good news? Remote employment is much like regular employment. There are, of course, employees. They communicate to you their needs. They tend to need equipment. How do you set yourself up for success in this new environment? Here are a couple of tips:

Communicate with your staff

Now more than ever, communication is key. Why and how often you communicate with your staff will undoubtedly change in a remote world (we will dive into that topic in another post). At the set up phase, be sure to ask the following questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • Is everything working the way it should?
  • Is there anything you need?

Be sure that your supervisors are sensitive to employees’ preferences, no matter how trivial they may seem.  It’s good for morale and liability. While the ADA does not require that you give employees their favorite type of chair, for example, you will be required to offer an effective alternative. An employee who needs lumbar support may require a cushion, or a chair, or delivery of their chair from the office to their home.

As we’ll discuss in a later post, these accommodations are typically reimbursed by the employer. In some states, it is required.

Strengthen (or Form!) Virtual Bonds

There’s an old saying that I actually made up: People join a company, but leave a boss. I might add that the newer generation might even “ghost” a boss – quietly exiting stage left and never returning.

As an employer, you know that turnover, and the subsequent interviewing, onboarding, and training, is very costly. Therefore, retaining employees should be a priority. In a virtual world, keeping employees happy might seem more difficult. But do not despair!

As it turns out, many employees are willing to miss company outings and happy hours in order to gain time otherwise spent commuting. In fact, according to OWL Labs’s State of Remote Work Report 2019, remote employees are more loyal and less likely to leave a job than on-site workers. In fact, remote workers say they are likely to stay in their current job for the next five years 13% more than on-site workers.

Yet, in the COVID-19 era, the competitive advantage remote employers enjoyed before has been greatly reduced. How do you distinguish yourself? Compensation is one way, but let’s talk culture, which is far more nuanced.

I recommend employers think through the following when assessing how to best develop bonds in their virtual office:

  • Did employees work from home in the past? What can we learn from them? How were they perceived?
  • Who are the individual contributors in the Company? Do they have mentors?
  • How many people does the busiest manager manage? Should that change?
  • Does the office have technology to support sharing of ideas, not just deliverables?

Retrain

Even if you are flexible and welcoming of our new remote world, you may have supervisors who are uncomfortable managing people who they can’t see. Micromanaging does little to foster trust in a remote work environment, but it didn’t help in an on-site environment, either.

In some ways, COVID-19 creates an opportunity for a clean slate. Use it to retrain supervisors on how to give employees ownership of their role, along with constructive feedback along the way. Remind them of the ways in which remote work can be uniquely draining on employees – especially during a global pandemic. Ensure that they know the resources offered by your Company, such as telehealth, an EAP, or a meditation app, so they can remind their direct reports.

If you have your own tips on how to set up the remote office the right way, please email me and I may interview you on The Remote Employer, a new podcast launching soon.

It Was Friday the 13th

Do you remember where you were the day the office went away?

Four months have passed since the modern office vanished. It was Friday, March 13, 2020. Like any good scene in a scary movie, it happened quickly – with little warning – though there were whispers here and there.

If you were a train commuter back then, you cautiously boarded on Monday, March 9, aware that the formerly acceptable sardine-like configuration of human bodies was not smart, but unaware that it was the last week you would be inside another man’s armpit.

If you were a music lover, you might have caught a live show, aware that nobody coughed between sets, but unaware that the venue would shutter in days and, perhaps, never reopen.

If you were a proud working parent who finally “had it all” – thanks to a mixture of some planning, much outsourcing, and a whole lot of luck – you were slightly annoyed by the talk of a school closure, but never imagined that a pushed-up spring break would become … summer.

Yes, the world is different in July than it was in March. And if you are an employer, your team is living with you in that world. Some are terrified. Others are lonely. A couple feel just fine (they tend not to have children at home). The minute #togetherapart started trending, the office changed forever. For many sectors, what was once a perk became a necessity. For other sectors, what was once a job became an essential service. We were no longer navigating a discussion over flexible work policies, #MeToo, and work-life balance. Like the 2020 primary, the hot topics lost their heat. What matters now? Two things: COVID-19 and how you respond.

The Brave New Remote World is here.

This blog will analyze the remote employer. We’ll look at trends, challenges, liabilities, and opportunities. We’ll study issues like safety, privacy, morale, and organization, and tackle the legal implications of this new world, including ADA accommodation, FLSA wage and hour, and, yes, #MeToo – unfortunately, sexual harassment exists on the internet.

Whether you were a remote employer in pre-COVID days or are just getting started, we hope you’ll follow along.

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