California law requires businesses to reimburse employees for all business expenses. (Shutterstock illustration)

Dilemma of the Month: How Working Remotely Can Be Effective for Your Company

Back Q&A Jun 2, 2020 By Suzanne Lucas

This story is part of our June 2020 print issue. To subscribe, click here.

We’re considering making the temporary measures for people to work from home caused by the coronavirus lockdown more formal to keep our business going. What are our obligations as employers? Do we have to pay for the internet? How do we make sure our time cards are correct? How do we keep people engaged?

Each one of these questions could merit its own answer. Quick fixes were needed to deal with the coronavirus crisis, and everyone acted quickly and did the best they could. But with the expectation that working remotely might become more widely adopted, it’s becoming obvious that it would be easier if things had been done right in the first place. So let’s sort out as much as we can.

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First, does an employer have to pay for the internet? California law requires businesses to reimburse employees for all business expenses. Typically, everyone thinks about things like business travel and mileage reimbursement, and no one worries about it when people work from home to wait for the air conditioner repair person to show up. But with more people expected to continue working from home full time, employers are obligated to pay for their workers’ home internet access, since it is necessary to do their jobs. The same goes for any equipment they need to purchase to do their jobs. 

Time cards are another issue that employers can’t get wrong. Nonexempt employees must be paid for all hours worked, regardless of whether they are consecutive or done in between homeschooling and toilet paper hunting. If an employee works more than 40 hours in a week or eight hours in a day, they get overtime pay, regardless of whether it was approved in advance.

There are a variety of computer programs employers can use to have employees  record their time — if the one being used is web-based, continue using it — or employees can keep track of hours in a spreadsheet and email it in once a week. And remember the principles of being “engaged to wait” — if the employee’s job is to take phone calls, even if they watch Netflix while waiting for the next call to come in, they have to be paid for that time. 

The best practice is to find a system that works for employees and for employers to remind them to record their time accurately. Managers must make it clear that if workers take a break in the middle of the day or work early in the morning or late at night, all that time needs to be recorded. 

Exempt employees, of course, receive the same paycheck regardless of how many hours they work during the day.

Those are the easy things. Now we get to the hard thing: How do managers keep their employees engaged and productive? Working from home is typically done without the whole family gathered around and no fear of the world ending sometime after lunch. So here are things employers can do to help their employees be engaged and productive.

1. Be honest with them. Try to keep them up on the business status as much as possible. There is so much you don’t know, it’s understandable if you can’t predict everything. But do your best — people can handle a lot more when they see what’s going on than they can when they are kept in the dark.

2. Offer your understanding. While you can expect quality results, you can’t expect everything to be identical to how it was when everyone worked in the same office. Working under the abnormal circumstances of the coronavirus crisis means things won’t always be perfect, and employers need to be OK with that.

3. Keep in touch. Managers should have regular contact with their employees, but that doesn’t mean micromanaging. Managers don’t need to monitor keystrokes or require employees to keep their cameras on so they can be seen working. A regular check-in, like, “How are you doing?” and regular feedback is fine.

4. Let them know you appreciate them. In this time of high unemployment, it can be tempting for companies to feel like the employees should be grateful to have a job. Trust me, they are thankful. But you need to be grateful to them for providing you with an income as well. If you lost all your employees, you wouldn’t have a job either. Good employees make good business. Tell your employees you appreciate them.

5. Listen to your employees. Ask for their suggestions on how to improve things. They know better than anyone else how to make their workday run smoothly and what support they need. 

Hopefully, these tips will help keep your business running smoothly until this is behind us, and we can settle into a new normal (whatever that is).

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