Pundits are predicting that even after the COVID-19 pandemic is ultimately brought under control — which might not occur for many more months — work-at-home arrangements will be more common than before the pandemic.
“While the experience of working at home during the crisis may not have been ideal as whole families sheltered in place, it will give people a taste of what could be. The genie is out of the bottle and it’s not likely to go back in,” predicts Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics (a California-based research and consulting firm). She estimates that 25% to 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
Note that “multiple days” doesn’t mean every day of the week. According to experts contacted by the New York Times, “a couple of days a week at each location [home and office] is the magic number to cancel out the negatives of each arrangement.”
Finding a Balance
This assessment recognizes that for some employees, working from home all the time can lead to a sense of isolation and reduced motivation. But for others, especially those without children under foot during work hours, a couple of days a week enables distraction-free productivity — and no commuting downtime.
The first question that may arise in this environment addresses workers compensation claims. In general, employee injuries that occur at home may be subject to workers comp claims if the injury can be considered work-related (very broadly defined), and you approved the work-at-home arrangement. So according to the legal website Nolo.com, when ambiguity exists, questions such as these will likely be the deciding factors:
- Was the employer “benefitting from the employee’s actions when the injury occurred?”
- Did the employer “require the employee to engage in the injury-causing activity?”
You should also know that as with injuries at the regular workplace, workers comp is “no-fault.” For example, if the employee carelessly tripped and sustained an injury, a legitimate workers comp claim can be made. That principle was reinforced 20 years ago in a case in which an employee working from home tripped on her dog while walking from a home office to the garage to retrieve some product samples from her car.
A more typical concern might be desk-bound employees lacking ergonomically designed furniture to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems that creep up over time, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
Safety at Home
Workers comp laws often vary from one state to the next. Review the terms of your workers comp policy. The bottom line, however, is that you need some assurance that employees working from home have safe working conditions to limit the possibility of harm to them, and any resulting workers comp claims, just as you do at your regular worksite. You might conclude that you need to provide some financial support to enable these employees to buy appropriate office furniture.
Giving employees specific safety guidelines can help provide that reassurance. Some employers even take the extra step of inspecting employees’ home offices for safety hazards.
What about damage to or the theft of business-owned property kept at an employee’s home office? If the value of any such property is significant, including computer equipment, this requires attention. Your commercial property insurance policy probably won’t cover property when it’s away from your premises, but it might. If it doesn’t, don’t count on your employees’ homeowner policies to protect you.
Talk to your insurer about the possibility of upgrading your commercial property coverage to get the proper protection.
A third potentially significant area of exposure requiring your attention is cybercrime. “Organizations of all kinds are facing an uptick in email-based threats, endpoint-security gaps and other problems as a result of the sudden switch to a fully remote workforce,” according to New York City-based cyber security firm SOSA. When employees are working from home and can access your computer system remotely, you could be more vulnerable to a hacking incident.
A major cause of that vulnerability is typically lower security levels for home-based wireless networks. Also, clever phishing scams that employees might fall victim to at home could do more harm than would otherwise be the case, depending on the security level of your office-based network.
Warning signs that employees should be on the alert for, experts say, include:
- Strange pop-up ads,
- New computer software that wasn’t previously installed,
- Losing control of the mouse or keyboard, or
- A slowdown in the computer’s operating speed.
To counteract the cybercrime vulnerability, consider limiting employee access to your network to an encrypted virtual private network and ensuring the computers have up-to-date antivirus software installed.
If you already have cyber insurance, be sure it covers damage originating with remote workers. If you don’t yet have cyber coverage, now is a good time to look into it.
This list of work-at-home related business hazards and risk management strategies is anything but exhaustive. Consult a risk management specialist if you expect to be one of the many companies with increasing numbers of employees working remotely in the months and years to come.