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Do you know where your work-from-home employees are?

today2022.03.18. 1562

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By Lisbeth Claus, Professor Emerita of Management & Global HR at Willamette University and Visiting Professor Hochschule Pforzheim

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?
The new normal of remote working provides great advantages, like flexibility regarding where employees work from. However, at the same time this may involve some risks too. These factors might be worth considering when updating remote work policies and procedures.

People who worked from home during the pandemic also sometimes left that home location to work from other places—often without the knowledge of their manager, HR or the employer.

If we have learned nothing else from the compulsory work-from-home experiment brought forth by the pandemic, it is that flexible and location-independent work arrangements (e.g., work-from-home, hybrid work, digital nomads, etc.) are rapidly gaining momentum. Data indicate that these different work arrangements have grown exponentially during the pandemic, and HR departments everywhere are adding more flexible work arrangements to their post pandemic talent management and return-to-work strategies.

One of the great advantages for employers is that by offering varied work arrangements, companies  demonstrate their responsiveness to workforce expectations of flexibility in workplace location and work hours—a strategic move during the worldwide phenomenon Anthony Klotz labeled the ‘great resignation’ of employees who are reassessing their work-life integration and fed up with lack of flexibility in the workplace. At the beginning of the pandemic, many employers took a “wait and see” approach and left their employees in limbo with a lack of clear communication as to their position on work flexibility. Innovative employers stepped in and offered their employees the choice of flexible work arrangements—on premise, hybrid, or remote only—rather than making it mandatory to return to the office. Companies with the foresight to move quickly to implement effective work-from-home and flexible work arrangements were able to quickly recruit and hire employees from companies that hesitated to publicly state their position on remote work. Employers offering a variety of work arrangements can cast a wider talent acquisition net if their employees can work from anywhere, anytime and potentially improve retention as a result. The major drawback of this enhanced work flexibility, of course, is that companies (and HR) must consider its many ramifications and figure out a multitude of operational details to implement hybrid and remote work choices alongside their existing on-premise work.

Preliminary data seems to indicate that people who worked from home during the pandemic also occasionally left their home to work from other places, and often without the knowledge of their manager, HR or the employer. While they officially ‘worked from home,’ employees may have also worked from their second home, rented a hotel space or AirBnB to work while away from home, worked while touring in a recreational vehicle, taken a workation, or even become digital nomads. In some cases, employees have reportedly left the country and worked across borders. Companies that cannot answer the question, ‘Do you know where your work-from-home employees are?’ leave themselves open to various compliance risks. The question is not designed to lead companies toward controlling or curtailing the flexibility of their employees but should help mitigate the possible risks involved when the employee’s true nexus of work is unknown. Unless HR develops appropriate agreements with its work-from-anywhere employees, these workers can become stealth employees who fly under the radar and may put themselves and the company at risk.

Here are some of the risks for HR to consider when they do not know where their employees are performing the work:

Payroll—there are more complex compliance requirements for the employer with regard to required payroll deductions as impacted by where the employee ‘officially’ works.

Taxationthe company’s corporate taxation may be impacted if the employee works where the company does not have a permanent establishment. 

Compensation— if the location’s cost-of living is a component of salary determination, not knowing where the work is performed affects the accuracy of the salary.   

Benefits—many company benefits, particularly healthcare, are location based and may not be accessible to the mobile employee who may work across states, provinces or even countries. 

Duty of care—an employer is responsible for the health, safety and security of employees wherever they work. It is much more complicated to identify and mitigate foreseeable risk when employees don’t work on company premises and it is also more difficult to provide needed employee assistance when companies don’t know where their employees are.   

Cyber security—not knowing where the employee stores and accesses company data may impact data security.  

How do companies monitor where employees are working? Some companies—particularly those leaning toward employees returning to the office—are monitoring and limiting employees to work from other areas. Responding to employee expectations for greater flexibility, they may offer three to four weeks of time a year when employees are able to work from anywhere provided such requests are approved in advance. Other companies offering greater work flexibility—but concerned with compliance risk—are announcing to their employees that they are actively monitoring IP addresses to determine where they are working. This raises questions whether such electronic monitoring is an invasion of privacy and constitutes corporate over-reach for employees.

Working anytime from anywhere is a not a free-for-all endeavor, but requires HR to set certain pre- determined boundaries for employees. HR must, with input of its different stakeholders, develop comprehensive yet agile, policies related to various remote work arrangements and solidify these in agreement letters with their affected workers. In countries with employment contracts versus at-will-employment, this may also require input from unions, works councils, and governments, and may even require an addendum to the employment contract.  Work flexibility—is here to stay. Now is the time to put these remote work policies and procedures into place with the appropriate safeguards.

Lisbeth is Professor Emerita of Management & Global HR at Willamette University (MBA) in Salem, Oregon (USA) and Visiting Professor at Pforzheim University (Germany). She is the author of two recent books: #ZigZagHR – Why the Best HR is No Longer HR (with Lesley Arens) and Be(Come) an Awesome Manager: The Essential Toolkit for Impact Leadership (with Scott Baker and Peter Vermeulen). Both books are available from Amazon. Contact info:  lclaus.@willamette.edu or via LinkedIn.

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Written by: Lisbeth Claus

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