The coronavirus crisis has led to a surge in remote work. And even as states look to reopen, many businesses may find long-term benefits to prolonging this arrangement. If your company has employees working from home, you need a remote work policy—and you need it in writing.
Two Reasons Your Business Needs a Work From Home Policy
You may think that it’s enough to communicate your expectations verbally or with ad hoc email messages. But it’s better to formalize your expectations in a written WFH policy. Doing so will not only yield practical benefits but can also provide important legal protections. Let me explain.
1. Practical Benefits
As many businesses are finding, there are a host of management and workflow issues that come up when employees work in a remote work environment. Questions include:
- What technology do employees need to work from home, and who will pay for it?
- How will data security be maintained? What technical support will the company provide?
- What hours are employees expected to work and be available for projects?
- What is your preferred means of team communication? Phone, email, text, Slack?
- How should employees track their time and productivity at home?
- Is there a dress code or etiquette guidelines for video conferences?
- Can employees work in locations outside their homes? How will you secure your data?
Implementing written protocols on these important questions will benefit your business. It’s one thing to convey your expectations informally. It’s another thing—and usually more effective—to have a written policy that team members can keep on hand for reference. This will make things simpler for them and will give management an objective source to refer back to when issues arise
2. Legal Protection
Businesses should understand that a whole raft of legal issues can arise when employees work from home. A written WFH policy can help protect your business. Here are three examples.
First, what if your company has a data breach? If your company experiences a data breach and customer data is exposed, your company could face potential liability. In the event of legal action, it will be critical for your business to be able to give evidence that it takes appropriate measures to keep customer data safe. Woe unto the business that must explain that to a court it had employees accessing customer data from home but had no formal data protection protocols in place. A business will likely fare better if it has provided employees with a solid, written work-from-home policy that carefully addresses data security. A written policy isn’t a cure-all, but it is a key part of any data security plan.
A second issue is trade secret misappropriation. Even the most trusted employee can become a misappropriator of trade secrets in the future. It happens all of the time, unfortunately. Six months, a year, two years down the line, that trusted employee could move to a competitor and start using confidential customer information, technical data, or other trade secrets obtained from your company. If legal action becomes necessary, you will need to prove that the employee acted improperly. You will also need to prove that your business took reasonable steps to protect its valuable information. Just to take one example, you don’t want anyone to be able to say that your business permitted employees to access company information on a personal computer or store information in a personal Google Drive or Dropbox account. Implement a written policy that states exactly when, how, and and for what purpose company information may be used.
A third impacted area is wage and hour law. It is important to understand that all of the same employment and wage and hour issues that arise in an office setting can arise in a remote work environment—sometimes in unexpected ways. Just to take one example, overtime issues can arise when employees work from home. In the event of an overtime dispute with an employee, your business will be in a better position if it is armed with documented procedures in place for recording hours worked from home.
A written WFH policy will not solve every problem, but it can be one valuable element in a business’s overall strategy for maximizing the value of remote work while protecting itself from legal issues that may arise. Even after the pandemic is over, many businesses will continue to have employees working at home. Your business should consider taking this opportunity to get its ducks in a row.
Maxwell Goss Law represents clients in trade secret, intellectual property, and business litigation cases in Michigan and nationwide.