managing employees remotely

It’s been almost two months since the BC government declared a state of emergency and businesses have had to adjust to restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many of our clients, they have moved passed the initial panic that accompanied those restrictions and are now trying to adapt to the new normal, with employees working from home, altered business practices and new service offerings. Along with these changes come a variety of questions related to managing employees in this new environment. We have summarized 3 common questions we’ve been asked below.

1. We temporarily laid off employees and are getting close to the 13 weeks that we are allowed to have layoffs. We don’t think we can bring those laid off employees back before the 13 weeks expires. What happens now?

First things first, employers should note that, on May 4, 2020, the BC Employment Standards Act (“ESA”) has temporarily extended the temporary layoff period from 13 weeks to 16 weeks if the layoff was due, at all or in part, to the COVID-19 emergency. This period was extended to provide greater flexibility to employers and to align the layoff provisions of the ESA with the 16-week benefit period set out for the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit. This temporary extension will be repealed when it is no longer required.

With these new changes, the ESA allows employers to temporarily lay off non-union employees for up to 16 weeks in any period of 20 consecutive weeks, provided employees are in agreement. If the employees are brought back to work during the 16 weeks, then employment resumes as normal. If the employees are not recalled during the 16 week period, then a termination of employment results and those employees are owed termination pay per their employment agreement (which must meet or exceed the requirements of Section 63 of the ESA). If termination pay is provided, employment with the company ceases. Employers would be obligated to pay out all monies owing (e.g. outstanding vacation pay, time bank, etc.) and provide a Record of Employment to the employee.

For temporary layoff provisions in other jurisdictions, please check with the applicable regulatory body.

2. I am concerned that some of my employees are really struggling with working from home and the stress of balancing work/life demands. What should I do?

Managers and employees alike are having difficulty adapting to new work habits, especially with the added complexity of homeschooling and getting used to all family members being home, ALL THE TIME. Depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges are also increasing as the work from home and physical distancing requirements continue. Some suggestions we have for employers include:

  • Checking in regularly with employees – Schedule regular one-on-one video meetings with staff to see how they are doing. Spend time talking about not just work, but also how employees are coping with being at home, what support they may need, and whether any changes are needed to help them balance their work/life challenges. Without casual opportunities to check in, like when you’re in the office together, you need to make a point to schedule these conversations.
  • Having genuine, authentic conversations – It’s easy during these difficult times to gloss over our personal challenges and answer “fine” when someone asks you how you’re doing. However, we know that not everyone is “fine”. Being a good leader requires demonstrating empathy, compassion, and vulnerability. Sharing challenges you are having may allow employees to open up about their own challenges, too, giving them an outlet to vent problems they may be having. Saying “I’m OK, but I’m really having trouble focusing when I have my 3 kids running around when I’m supposed to be on a work call” is honest and acknowledges to your staff that it’s OK to be struggling and we’re all in this together. While you may not be able to help them with their problems, you can offer a listening, empathetic ear.
  • Increasing communication – With employees working remotely, managers need to make more concerted efforts to communicate with all employees and bring them together. Regular all employee video staff meetings, smaller group meetings, periodic emails or newsletters, more frequent discussions on how the company is adapting and plans for the upcoming days, weeks and months to adapt to COVID-19, are important. All these are great ways to make sure employees are kept informed, are prepared for upcoming changes, and are able to adapt their own work processes to meet new company priorities.
  • Adjusting expectations – If you know that employees need to juggle competing demands of work and family while working from home, it may mean that adjustments need to be made to work hours, meeting times, response times, and other work logistics. These are unprecedented times and keeping to an employee’s regular schedule of hours may not be possible. That said, it doesn’t mean that employees can work between 11:00 pm and 7:00 am. Instead, create a new, adjusted work schedule that can accommodate both the employee’s and the employer’s requirements to help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Encouraging employees to seek help from their doctor – If you notice that staff members are really struggling emotionally or mentally, encourage them to get help. Whether from their doctor, the Employee Assistance Program, or some other mental health resource, your employee may need extra support to help them manage the changes that COVID-19 has brought about.

Here are some support resources that may be helpful:

3. I am noticing that employees are showing up to video staff meetings and meetings with customers looking less than professional. They aren’t dressed for work, they look unkempt, their dirty dishes are on display, their kids and pets are running in and out of view. I am fine to relax our expectations somewhat to accommodate the new realities, but how do we make sure that employees still look presentable and act professionally even if they are working from home?

Even with employees working from home, it is important for employers to set expectations for how employees are expected to conduct themselves while on work-related business. For video calls, it is certainly recommended that employers create guidelines and standards on what is acceptable. While it is generally understood that employees might not be wearing their business suit on a call like they normally would in person, set expectations related to:

  • Dressing appropriately and professionally, when on a video call with fellow colleagues and business contacts. No one needs to see you in your pajamas or in your ripped and dirty t-shirt. If employees are dressed appropriately only from the waist up, which now appears to be common practice, make sure that their cameras are angled correctly so that we don’t see their lower body attire on video.
  • Practicing personal grooming. Personal grooming and appearance is important to set a tone of professionalism and credibility. While you’d think it goes without saying, ensure that employees know that they should comb their hair, shower and look well-kempt and, generally, presentable.
  • Setting virtual video backgrounds to something neutral if the actual background is distracting, messy or potentially perceived as unprofessional. Dirty dishes or risqué art behind you? Change your virtual video background to a forest or ocean, or a fake clean living room!
  • Muting and turning off video. Ask employees to mute themselves or use their headphones if there is lot of background noise that could be distracting for others on the call. Have them turn off their video if they have to move around or deal with someone else in their home workspace. This will be less distracting for everyone.

If you have any video call pet peeves or any other comments or questions regarding the work from home situation, feel free to send them our way and we’ll produce a follow-up newsletter with your suggestions.

Our previous newsletters on the coronavirus and the workplace can be found on our blog. As always, we are here to help you. Please contact us if you have any HR questions.