Creating a flexible work policy: it’s not as easy as you think 

With more than half of employers saying that more than 75% of their workforce is remote due to the pandemic, more companies have been forced to implement flexible work policies on a greater scale. Two out of three organizations are actively creating or updating policies, according to Mercer’s flexibility survey. This is consistent across industries as companies seek to balance agility in responding to evolving pandemic related working conditions, with the need for enhanced governance around working environments.

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Creating a Flexible Work Policy Is Not As Easy As You Think

Employers were forced virtually overnight into imperfect solutions to adjust to the new realities of work during a pandemic. Many employers were unprepared and struggled to get employees running efficiently. The sentiment was that this was temporary and soon employees would be brought back to resume business as usual. However, that is not today’s reality, as nearly 70% of US companies have slowed, delayed or halted return to the workplace plans. 

As employers consider longer-term remote working policies, better practices will need to be put in place. Whether instilling a temporary COVID-19 solution or implementing a longer-term flexibility strategy, flexible working policies can be complex, as there are critical decisions to be made related to regulatory compliance, health, safety and security risks and financial support.

Regulatory Compliance

Some employers are considering a “work from anywhere” policy, but without proper planning this can wreak havoc on tax and regulatory compliance. For instance, what are the implications if an employee moves to a state where your organization does not currently have an operation? Both the organization and the employee will need to ensure payroll is set up accurately and to address local and state tax requirements. Or, what happens when an employee goes outside the country and works remotely longer-term – without the proper work permits?

The implications of non-compliance are wide-ranging and organizations should evaluate the reputational risk to the business. As you review your policy, ensure you are creating one that establishes boundaries around remote working and meets your company’s risk profile to address potential compliance issues proactively.

Health and Safety Risks

The foundation of foreseeable risk is that employers must prevent work-related injuries, and it doesn’t matter if employees are in the office or at home. Seventy-five percent of employees report their employer has not conducted a health and safety risk assessment. Most countries have general health and safety laws and guide risk mitigation. By not complying with health and safety requirements, an employer could experience higher liability if an injured employee makes a claim.

This is critical as we know ergonomic discomfort is on the rise, and so is the associated employer risk of exposure to liability claims. According to one opinion poll of people working from home, 41% said they experienced new or increased pain in shoulders, backs, or wrists since starting to work from home. Managing ergonomics in a traditional office workplace is relatively easy as we know how people work – with a proper desk, reasonable space, and an ergonomic chair. But at home, it is not always optimized. Many workers have adapted to a wider variety of areas, habits, and awkward postures like working from their living room, on their couch or bed, or at a dining table. One study reported that 43% of home workers said they took no action to make their home workspace more comfortable or efficient.

Security and Privacy Risks

No matter where employees are working, the work should be protected from cybersecurity and privacy threats at the same level as work performed in the office. Temporary remote working arrangements are fraught with security risks, such as poorly configured networking equipment, mixing of company and personal devices, and working environments that are not secure from others in the home. This relaxation of security protocols in the home can increase exposure of sensitive corporate or customer data and lead to a breach of privacy, or other major security issues with high business impact.

As companies look to the future, these ad-hoc or provisional solutions will need to be reexamined and either put on a more secure and sustainable footing for the long term or be re-architected altogether. HR leaders can partner with the IT organization to address technical capabilities to secure the remote workplace, but they will also need to embrace behavioral practices in employees to be effective. To mitigate security risks, employers must establish requirements for working remotely, on topics such as internet capabilities, the presence of others in the workspace, usage of video cameras, and proximity of monitoring devices such as security systems and voice activated assistants.

Financial Support

Many employers are evaluating whether to provide financial support to remote employees and how to manage this. Based on our recent data, only four in every 10 employers provide any financial support to employees working remotely, and most are paying via a reimbursement process. As part of your organization’s policy considerations, employers should determine what, if any, financial assistance will be made available to employees to support the setup of a home office.

Financial support should be structured in a way that ensures a return on mitigating risks related to the health, safety, security, and productivity of your workforce. For example, some organizations have made announcements providing employees with a $1,000 stipend to use as they see fit for enhancing their home office, with no strings attached. In these types of programs, employers may not see a return on that investment, as employees may choose to spend that money in ways that do not address remote working concerns. Employers should determine what equipment will be necessary to enhance the security, health and safety of the home office, then back into the financial amount that’s provided. They can then provide employees with the parameters for purchasing such as a curation of ergonomic chairs, desks, or computer equipment.

Four Tips to Get Started with Your Flexible Work Policy

Below are four tips to help you establish a flexible work policy that will keep your employees healthy and safe, your workplace secure,  as well as be compliant with national and state regulations.
  1. Establish the boundaries of flexible work in your organization.
    Determine who is eligible, and when, where, and how they can work flexibly.
  2. Determine what support the organization will provide.
    Establish what resources will be provided to mitigate risks related to health, safety and security such as access to computer or ergonomic equipment.
  3. Create a work-from-home or flexible working agreement
    This is a signed contract between the employee and employer that defines the acceptable parameters for working remotely related to location, home setup, the security of information, and other considerations.
  4. Educate Employees and Managers
    Employees need education on the risks associated with working remotely, and how to create a safe working environment. Make online trainings available to raise awareness of the issues.
During COVID-19, many organizations have higher populations of flexible workers than ever before. But as we look to the future – post-pandemic – some things will change, such as less extreme social isolation. Social services like school will return, and employees will have options to flex both remotely and in the office. But risk and compliance issues will remain, so long as employees are working remotely. Temporary stop gaps that have been put in place will not be sustainable. As you consider your future state while operating in the current state, evaluate these nuances and how they will influence your flexible work policy so you can support the needs of your employees while staying in compliance with regulations and limiting exposure to health, safety and security risks.
About the author(s)
Jeff Smagacz

Ergonomics Practice Leader, Senior Vice President, Consulting Solutions, Marsh Advisory, Marsh & McLennan

Tom Fuhrman

Managing Director, Cybersecurity Consulting, Consulting Solutions, Marsh Advisory

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