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COVID-19: Navigating Working From Home for Employers and Employees

April 2, 2020

Working from home

Author: Rachel West and Fiona Balaton

The COVID-19 outbreak is forcing organizations and employees to rely on remote work arrangements. While work from home arrangements have intrinsic challenges, the current COVID-19 social-isolation measures add further difficulty, as many employees are now balancing working from home with childcare obligations or home-schooling. Working remotely may result in a reduction in employee productivity.   

Employee personal circumstances will be an important consideration for employers in the coming weeks. It is critical for employers to be aware that the Alberta Human Rights Act (“AHRA”) prohibits employers from discrimination on the basis of family responsibility. 

Practical Steps for Working From Home

While this can be a challenging time, there are a number of practical steps both employers and employees can take to help navigate this transition and maintain productivity. In this article, we have: 

  • rounded up the best tips for employees working from home; 
  • broken down an employer’s obligation to accommodate employees; and 
  • provided practical tips for employers managing employees remotely. 

This blog post is provided for information only. If you are seeking guidance on how to manage your business’ response during COVID-19, please contact a lawyer from Carbert Waite’s Employment Law Group to discuss your unique situation. 

Tips For Working From Home for Employees

  • Maintain structure in your day. Plan your day as if you are going to work, get up at the same time and follow your morning routine. Try to mimic your daily office schedule as much as possible given other responsibilities at home. 
  • If you need to make adjustments to the hours you typically would work in the office because of child care responsibilities, because you are sharing equipment with a partner who is also working from home, or for another reason, discuss the arrangements with your supervisor.
  • Set up a designated space for working at home.
  • If you are struggling with an abrupt transition to remote work, try focusing on the benefits. How much commute time are you saving? Consider gas, transit, coffee, or parking savings.
  • Use technology to stay connected. Structure your daily schedule to accommodate communication with colleagues. Without a “water cooler” space to chat, finding other ways to maintain connection can prevent feelings of isolation when working remotely.
  • Take the time to get fresh air and exercise; even in times of self-isolation, a socially distanced walk can help maintain sanity and good health.
  • If you feel like you lack guidance when working from home, initiating regular check-ins with your manager can provide more structure. Communication is key.
  • When faced with challenges, resist expressing your frustration over e-mail. Picking up the phone to talk through an issue can be more effective.
  • Use humour to cope; laughing and sharing jokes and memes can increase connection to coworkers and help us all come to terms with our changing world. We are all in this together!

Tips for Employers Working From Home – Leading Remotely

The skills needed to successfully lead remote workers and teams are unique and need to be added to the leadership tools you implement when working in the office. Even with planning and preparation, leading from a distance can be challenging – even more so if you are thrown into it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are a few practical tips to help support your success.

  • Check in regularly with your employees to help them feel more comfortable and connected.
  • Schedule regular team meetings or virtual huddles, as well as one-on-ones, to maintain the flow of work and communication.
  • E-mail and instant messages can lack tone and create misunderstandings. Lead by example by not jumping to assumptions, and address potential conflict immediately.
  • Even if you have known your employees for years, working to maintain strong relationships is important from a distance. Express appreciation for your team, acknowledge birthdays, and carve out time for personal conversations that would happen naturally in a shared office.
  • Ensure that you and your employees maintain work-life balance and wellness. Encourage your team to set boundaries to ensure the home is not a 24/7 workplace.
  • Set clear start and finish times for yourself, as well as breaks that would normally occur in the office. Clarify to your team when you are “out”.
  • Leverage e-mail, instant messaging, and video to facilitate numerous avenues for communication. Turning video on for one-on-ones and team meetings helps people be more present and engaged.
  • Shift to a results-focused mindset instead of a time-focused mindset by setting clear performance goals. This allows for more flexibility with schedules, and less anxiety for parents that may be having to split their time between managing children and work.

Employers Managing Remote Employees – Navigating Obligations

In this evolving situation with COVID-19, employers also need to remember that obligations under the Employment Standards Code and the AHRA still apply while employees are working remotely. 

Working from home can create difficulties for both employer and employee, particularly when they are sudden, as is the case for many people during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Employees with children now face the unprecedented situation of having their children out of school for the foreseeable future. Parents will have to somehow balance their work and childcare obligations in a way never considered before. Employers should be aware that while productivity in these employees may suffer, at least in the short term, there remains a duty to accommodate these employees.

Alberta Human Rights Act

Under s. 7(1) of the AHRA, employers cannot discriminate against any person with regard to employment or any term or condition of employment, because of the race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation of that person or of any other person.

Alberta courts have confirmed that family status under the AHRA includes childcare responsibilities.

Duty to Accommodate in Employment

The duty to accommodate in employment refers to an employer’s obligation to take appropriate steps to eliminate discrimination against employees and potential employees. Discrimination may result from a rule, practice or barrier that has a negative effect on a person with a need for accommodation based on the grounds protected under the AHRA. An employer’s duty to accommodate employees is far reaching, and certainly includes employees forced to work at home due to the evolving public health crisis.

Some things to consider when accommodating employees include: 

  • purchasing or modifying tools, equipment or aids, as necessary  
  • altering aspects of the job, such as job duties 
  • offering flexible work schedules 
  • allowing time off for recuperation 
  • transferring employees to different roles 
  • adjusting policies (for example, relaxing the requirement to wear a uniform)

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, this may include any of the above as well as ensuring that an employee is not discriminated against on the basis of reduced productivity due to the circumstances facing many employees. 

Managing Your Business’ Response and Your Accommodation Obligations

As this is a situation that could continue for many months, employers and employees need to find ways of making these accommodations together to support the success of the business. Good communication, as well as developing some heathy habits for working at home can help navigate these difficult times.

For advice on accommodation obligations, or guidance on how to manage your business’ response during COVID-19, please contact a lawyer from Carbert Waite’s Employment Law Group to discuss your specific circumstances.