In 2017, in the middle of a live interview with BBC News, Professor Robert Kelly’s daughter marched stridently into the background, becoming an instant media sensation. Just four years later, the intersection of work life and home life is accepted as the “new normal,” and the sight of a child wandering through the background of a live meeting barely raises an eyebrow. Most nonprofit employers understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of working—perhaps permanently—but the adaptation of policies and practices haven’t always kept up.
In the early days of the pandemic, nonprofit employers scrambled to implement telecommuting strategies. The crisis didn’t leave much time for considering the long-term implications of a “virtual workplace.” Now that over 70 million Americans have been vaccinated for COVID-19, more nonprofits are considering whether to require employees to return to the office, or to permit them to continue telecommuting. Many nonprofit managers are surprised to find that differing expectations about whether working from home is a right or a privilege are creating conflict. At worst, employers may face an expensive and time-consuming lawsuit.
Home as the New Workplace
Managing boundaries has been a particularly difficult area for employees to navigate when they suddenly became telecommuters. Last year when the pandemic first hit the U.S., stay-at-home orders were implemented across the country. As schools and childcare centers closed, employees took on additional roles at home that often overlapped with their work time. Gone was the traditional office environment that provided a physical barrier between employees’ professional and personal lives. For many employees, home and work have been taking place in the same space for a year or more. The challenge of balancing work and personal obligations is front and center.
Unfortunately, the majority of managers have never received any formal training in how to manage a remote workforce, much less a workforce dealing with competing demands on employees’ time. Managers themselves are experiencing burnout in having to maintain an inexhaustible supply of encouragement and positivity in the face of employees who are being asked to juggle multiple responsibilities for home and work.
Now is the time for nonprofits to begin implementing more robust policies and schedules for employees who continue to work from home. Employees may be reluctant to return to the office, or to compromise on a previously flexible schedule. Even after they have been trying to “do the right thing” for their employees, nonprofits are sometimes surprised to find they are not on the same page with their employees about the long-term strategy.
Another challenge employers are facing is increased requests by employees to work at home for medical reasons. Many employees are concerned about returning to the office, especially if they have a condition that would make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19. In some situations, telecommuting can be a reasonable accommodation for an employee with a disability. But navigating that path can be tricky, and with disability discrimination cases climbing every year. Many nonprofits don’t realize that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are responsible for identifying situations in which an employee may need an accommodation and offering to engage in the interactive process. Employers can unintentionally create liability merely by saying “no” to requests like telecommuting without engaging in the legally required steps to determine whether such an accommodation is appropriate and necessary.
Nonprofit managers and their reports often bemoan the loss of the benefits of in-person discussions. Many studies show employees working remotely are actually more productive than they are in the office. But that often depends on the nature of the work. Research has shown that the more complex the interactions required as part of a particular job, the less likely that job can be fulfilled on a 100% remote basis. The casual knowledge transfer and social bonds that develop through in-person interactions are difficult to replace. Intentionally developing informal collaboration strategies—not just cheesy icebreakers—leads to increased engagement and employee retention.
Workplace Policies in the Virtual Workplace
Nonprofits remain responsible for ensuring that wage and hour laws are followed, even when employees are working remotely. Given the blurring of lines between work and personal time, how can nonprofits ensure that hourly employees accurately report their hours, including overtime? That situation can be further complicated when an employee already has performance problems. Managing employee performance in a remote environment brings a particular set of challenges that require careful consideration and management.
As difficult as it has been to suddenly launch a remote work strategy, many nonprofits have discovered the advantages of a remote workforce. Telecommuting has allowed nonprofit employers to hire from a much more widespread talent pool and reduce the overhead of maintaining physical workspace for all its employees. Fewer cars on the road helps reduce pollution. Even as the pandemic appears to wane, it’s clear that telecommuting in some form is here to stay. Nonprofits will benefit from an intentional implementation of a risk-conscious strategy for handling remote work.
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