As remote and hybrid work arrangements pick up steam heading toward a post-pandemic world, employers should invest significant front-end planning work to avoid legal and moral conflicts.
“If you are allowing teams X and Y to be more fully remote but teams A and B must come into the office, that will lend itself to some morale issues,” says Michael Schmidt, a labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor law firm. “Recognize that, while you want to have consistency, you don’t want the added morale issues by treating employees differently.”
No matter how fair the policy, expect employees to raise questions, he says. Some may complain about the number of work hours or claim discrimination, based on factors like age, race or religion. Schmidt says more remote or hybrid workers generally leads to an increase in discrimination claims stemming from communication via email or social media. People tend to be more informal, perhaps less sensitive, he says, when communicating behind a virtual water cooler as opposed to being in a physical office.
Depending on the nature of your business or workplace culture, a cookie-cutter hybrid approach may not be the best fit for your organization. Analyze the type of work that needs to be performed by employees in specific functions or jobs, says Schmidt. Which tasks can be done remotely? Which ones must be done on site? Which jobs require constant or frequent interaction with employees in different departments?
Likewise, avoid implementing a policy based on assumptions or on what other companies are doing. If one of your goals is to minimize the number or severity of employee claims, surveying employees about their needs and expectations is critical.
“Communicating with employees early on as opposed to just saying, ‘This is what we came up,’ is a better approach,” he says, adding that the sooner employees feel that their opinions are being considered, the easier it will be for them to accept and comply with your policy.
Among the biggest mistakes HR can make is to develop policies that intentionally distinguish between protected classes like gender or age groups, he says. Consider holding a town hall meeting—either virtually or in person—to clearly articulate the reasons one group of employees will benefit more from your hybrid model than another. Train managers and supervisors on how to handle employee reactions, criticisms or questions in real time. Consistency in messaging matters.
“Employers are entitled to run their business in a way that makes sense for them and ensures productivity,” Schmidt says. “But there is a role for employees to play in those discussions or considerations.”