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The changes that office spaces have undergone in the 21st century are no coincidence. As society has transformed, rigid modular plans that emphasize hierarchy have given way to open spaces that invite collaboration and horizontal work structures, advanced technology has allowed for more flexibility in work schedules, and managers have become increasingly aware of the benefits that a positive work culture has on productivity and employee retention. But taking care of your workers is not only good practice for those looking to create a workplace environment in which happiness is a priority; in terms of business liability, it simply makes sense.
Though there are many advantages to employing a remote workforce, pivoting to a remote model also comes with legal implications that must be considered before taking the plunge. As remote work has steadily risen in the past decade (with a notable spike due to the COVID-19 pandemic), more companies are embracing its benefits, including significant savings on the overhead expenses that come with an office, and the possibility of widening the talent pool from which they recruit — therefore, increasing the diversity of their teams — by hiring people from multiple regions and backgrounds.
Laws vary across the world, and it’s sensible to brush up on the specific labor laws of whichever state or country your employees are working from. You and your payroll provider should be informed on the regulations of each state or country from which your remote team is working, but some general matters to take into account apply across borders. Let’s take a broad look at what liability concerns you should be addressing if your company is gearing up to become partially or fully remote.
The concept of “work-related injuries” brings to mind accidents and hospital stays, but that isn’t solely the case. Some health hazards are more insidious, especially those related to ergonomics, and a company can be liable for any avoidable strains placed on workers’ bodies due to faulty equipment. When furnishing an office space, one of the first aspects to consider is that workstations promote comfortable posture through strategically-placed equipment and adequate chairs, and home offices should be no different.
Beyond ensuring comfort and productivity, taking the initiative to ensure that remote workspaces are ergonomically compliant will save you money in the long run. In the United States, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has determined that almost a third of dollars spent on workers’ compensation costs come from claims involving ergonomic injuries. This is equivalent to $20 billion USD in worker’s compensation payments, medical payments and legal expenses just in the US. Furthermore, the indirect costs are five times this amount in the form of lost productivity, training replacement employees, and costs associated with lower employee morale and absenteeism, so be sure to plan ahead.
Though our scope has grown considerably, GroWrk was initially founded on the idea that a safe and comfortable ergonomic workstation should be an easy thing for a company to provide their remote workers with, wherever they may be located. Our platform enables companies to care for the physical health of their remote workforce, avoiding future liability issues.
As for injuries resulting from accidents, OSHA states that all home-based workers have the same workers’ compensation benefits as in-office workers regarding any injuries they may sustain on the job, such as tripping over cables or misplaced objects, falling down stairs, or electrical shock when handling equipment. Though companies have more control over preventing safety hazards in one physical office space than in the individual homes of each of their workers, it’s worth also considering that a remote work model drastically cuts the possibilities of commute-related injuries while on the clock, which can be eligible for workers’ compensation.
To lessen the risk of your remote team sustaining any injuries, it’s recommended that you work with a consultant to draft up a general safety guide for working from home, and check in with employees regularly to ensure their spaces are in good shape. This is another area we’ve specialized in. Through GroWrk’s platform, we offer employers visibility into their remote workers’ needs and concerns, ensuring periodic inspections of their workstations so that you can focus on your business, knowing this is taken care of.
Because the law doesn’t differentiate between traditional office buildings and home offices, there have been many cases of courts siding with workers when it comes to injuries sustained at home during office hours. Oregon’s Court of Appeals, for example, ruled in favor of the worker in the case of Sandberg vs. JC Penney, after the worker tripped over her own dog while walking to her garage. Because this was the space where she stored the fabric samples needed to carry out her work tasks, it was determined that she was owed workers’ compensation.
So what if an employee occasionally chooses to work outside of their home office, say, in a coffee shop or library? Vivek Boray, an international start-up lawyer, advises that you communicate the rules of remote employment to your team, letting them know that you’re committed to providing a comfortable workspace in their homes for them to use safely. “Treating home offices similarly to how you would a normal office is important, so if an employee goes off-site, they should notify you about that,” Boray says.
Stephen Bloomburg, a Principal in the workers’ compensation department of the law firm Post & Schell PC, told a reporter from Governing that “it doesn’t really matter if the accident could have been avoided by the employee’s actions,” adding that “if the employee is injured while in the course of their assignment, they are going to receive compensation regardless of whether they were negligent.” For this reason, several things are crucial when managing remote workers: First, you should have open communication with all employees regarding the importance of keeping their workspaces safe, letting them know you’re committed to the subject. Additionally, investing in an internal HR team or external consultant dedicated to periodically following up on these matters is good practice. Finally, you shouldn’t skimp on insurance — which we’ll discuss later on — even if your team is working out of office.
Office spaces are usually furnished with computers, printers, scanners, projectors for meeting rooms, and anything else employees may need to comfortably carry out their tasks. But once your team is scattered across or beyond the city, providing everyone with the necessary equipment may seem like a daunting task. This is one of the first steps to consider when pivoting your company to remote, as it’ll be a key to the success of your remote work strategy. To fully access the benefits of allowing your team to work from home, you must consider the initial investment of work equipment, such as laptops or desktop computers, tablets, mobile phones, and other gadgets.
This raises the question of who is responsible for any damage that may occur to company property inside a worker’s home. Most business insurance policies cover property used outside of office premises, though work-related damage to the homeowner’s property may not be covered, and it’s important that you discuss this with remote workers to be informed on their particular situations, including whether they rent or own their homes.
One of the biggest concerns that the possibility of remote work brings is cybersecurity, especially for companies that handle sensitive information. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has been reported that remote workers have been targeted by up to 65,000 Google-branded impersonation attacks, due to ill-prepared strategies to move workers from office buildings to their homes. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrent for pivoting to remote if you’re able to carefully plan the switch beforehand.
In a guest post for Workplaceless, Natasha Bowman JD, SPHR, founder and CEO of Performance Renew and the author of You Can’t Do That at Work: 100 Legal Mistakes Managers Make in the Workplace, advises three things to address the privacy and security of the information handled within your company:
Mainly, it’s important to have an IT professional set up a secure connection from all devices in your employees’ homes to your company network. Another measure you can take is training employees to identify emails and websites that could pose a threat, and to be generally mindful of cybersecurity protocols. Finally, different forms of cyber insurance can protect your company from significant losses in case of a hack.
All companies should have some form of insurance regardless of whether they operate from an office building or not. For companies that are ready to take the step towards remote work, however, there are specific types of insurance that can offer wider coverage in the event that any of the previously mentioned situations may arise.
General liability insurance covers a wide variety of claims, and is considered the bare minimum of what you should acquire.
Workers’ compensation insurance specifically protects you against any liability for injuries that your workers may sustain on the job, whether it be at home or otherwise.
Property insurance covers more than just commercial buildings rented or owned by the company. It also covers certain causes of loss of company-owned equipment, including computers and furniture.
Hiring an expert to take charge of the legal issues that can arise when managing a remote workforce will not only save you time and energy, it can also avoid costly lawsuits in the future. By working with an individual or department that focuses on tending to the specific needs of your remote team, you’re ensuring that your company values are practiced, not just stated, and that you, your workers, and your clients are all protected.
The starting point of a robust remote work policy is to ensure that an employee is able to perform his or her work comfortably, healthily, and efficiently wherever he or she works. People come first in everything that GroWrk does. To learn more about how GroWrk can help your team work better remotely, click here.
This blog is provided for general informational purposes only and no attorney-client relationship is created with you when you use the blog. By using the blog, you agree that the information on this blog does not constitute legal or other professional advice. The blog is not a substitute for obtaining legal advice from a qualified attorney licensed in your state. The information on the blog may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct or up-to-date, and may not reflect the most current legal developments. The opinions expressed on the blog are the opinions of the authors only.
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