Remote work, already more common in recent years, became the norm in 2020 as part of the COVID-19 public health response. Even with government mandates lifted and the pandemic appearing to be on the decline, many New Jerseyans continue to work from a home office – at least part of the time – making it increasingly important for businesses to re-think their corporate structures and flesh out sound “work-from-home” policies.
A 2020 survey by The Conference Board, an independent business membership and research association, found 83% of companies expect full-time employees will continue working from home at least three days per week post-pandemic. According to a February 2022 study by the Pew Research Center, 59% of Americans with jobs that can be done remotely are primarily working from home, down from 71% at the height of COVID-19, but up considerably from 23% prior to 2020.
“If we have to look for a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that we can effectively work from home and be productive,” says Eileen Oakes Muskett, a partner at Fox Rothschild Attorneys at Law in Atlantic City. “However, since there is no longer a legal requirement to allow employees to work from home, employers should analyze each individual situation to determine if working from home is the best alternative for both the employer and employee.”
First and foremost, Muskett urges clients with home-based employees to establish a remote work policy with guidelines for the workspace (including what type of equipment should be used); protecting proprietary information (including employees bringing sensitive documents back to the office on “shredding days”); and making time for regular breaks and exercise. “You want to give employees a safety checklist and virtual training on how to set up a workstation that includes a chair at the right height,” she says. “If employees are working at a dining room table, you may see an increase in neck injuries.”
Muskett also suggests creating a virtual bulletin board where the employer posts notices that would typically hang in a lunchroom, as well as setting up a system for tracking work hours for non-exempt employees, as unscheduled and unpaid work time can cause problems down the road – particularly if an employee is terminated.
“There are so many great programs out there to track work,” she says, referring to employee monitoring software like Time Doctor, Toggl, RescueTime, Hours and others. “What I’ve been recommending to clients is to have their employees review and certify their time sheets each week. This way, you have an affirmative statement by the employee that there was no other time they worked that’s not accounted for in their recorded time.”
In addition, Muskett says it’s important to keep the company culture alive and well, which can include having “team days” at the office. “Employers need to find a way to be flexible while still achieving that collaborative, interactive work experience most of us need to be efficient and produce the most optimal work product,” she adds.
In 2021, a Help Net Security survey of 1,000 small-to-medium-sized business owners found 77% believe remote work poses a substantial cybersecurity risk to their company, while 66% find it significantly harder to monitor their online infrastructure with so many employees working from home. With cybersecurity of premium importance, there are several steps remote workers can take to keep sensitive data safe from online predators, such as having separate computers for personal and work use, choosing a strong password, learning to detect and avoid phishing scams, installing regular software and antivirus updates, and always keeping the VPN turned on. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Nicholas McCourt, a cybersecurity engineer at East Windsor-based Integris, it’s important to change the way at-home workers view cybersecurity. Many rely on their firewalls, which – while providing some protection – aren’t “smart” like the latest software programs designed to monitor the network and look for suspicious activity.
“Companies have people all around the world, so when the pandemic hit, (these programs) needed to run 24-7,” he says. “It’s about a managed response, making sure security is software- rather than hardware-based, and vulnerability management, which has become more important than installing an appliance on a network and running a scan once a year to check a box.”
When it comes to insurance for remote workers, costs are usually split between the company and employee, says Matt Peroni, personal lines underwriting supervisor for NJM Insurance Group in West Trenton. Employers typically maintain coverage for company owned computers and equipment, while the employee’s homeowner’s policy should provide coverage for personal property – including furniture – purchased for home use.
Peroni goes on to point out that a homeowners insurance policy is generally not designed to cover home-based businesses; in fact, many policies contain exclusions for incidents that occur on an employee’s property relating to business-related activities. “Fortunately, an employer’s business liability policy often provides coverage to employees for injuries that occur while working at home,” he says. “At the same time, a remote employee who is injured at home and files a claim must prove the incident occurred in the course and scope of their employment.”
For an entrepreneur setting up a home business, a personal homeowner’s policy may provide limited coverage for certain
business-related risks, but will generally not cover liability relating to the business or protect business data, Peroni says. He recommends reviewing your personal insurance policies to confirm coverages and exclusions and identify any gaps. “Entrepreneurs, including sole proprietors, should consider several different types of coverage, including commercial general liability, business owner, commercial auto, workers compensation, and professional liability policies,” he adds. “The coverage needed will vary depending on the nature and structure of the business.”
And while remote employees may think they’re off the hook for paying taxes in the state where their physical office is located, that is not necessarily the case, says Robert Carpenter, CPA, a partner at Grassi Advisors & Accountants in Park Ridge. It is also important to note that even though they may be working from home some or all of the time, employees who receive a W-2 from an employer are generally ineligible for a home office deduction – a benefit reserved for the self-employed person whose home office is for “exclusive and regular business use, is the main (or only) office for their business, and is used only for purposes of the business.”
There are, no doubt, many advantages of working at home – both for the employee who saves the commuting time and expense, and the employer who can potentially downsize office space and reduce overhead. “Now that traditionally non-remote employees have gotten a taste of working from home, there is a lot of value in the form of employee retention and satisfaction to allow them to continue in remote or hybrid roles,” Carpenter adds. “Employees who have proven they can perform effectively in a remote environment have earned that trust, and it goes a long way to helping them achieve the work-life balance they crave.”
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