Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance, Technology

Strategies and Considerations for Letting Sick Employees Work from Home

Much to the chagrin of employers around the world, employees’ temptation to feign illness to avoid work is not limited to high school students and entry-level employees. Professionals in any industry may seek to avoid a day in the office by notifying their employer of a nonexistent illness.sick

Many companies have acknowledged this reality by simply eliminating the distinction between sick days and general paid-time-off (PTO) days, removing much of the motivation for faking illness.

On the other end of the spectrum are employees who legitimately are sick but choose to come to the office anyway. They either are diligent, committed workers who feel compelled to work through an illness or would rather tough it out in the office than forfeit a coveted day of PTO.

Both situations pose challenges for employers, but in this feature, we focus on the latter case. Employees who choose to come to the office and work through an illness risk infecting their coworkers.

Many employers would prefer that those sick employees simply stay home until they are recovered and no longer contagious.

The Temptation to ‘Tough It Out’

“In my experience, most employees will try to ‘power through’ an illness and come to work,” says Monica Narvaez, an employment attorney with Estes Thorne & Carr. “There are many reasons for this phenomenon. For example, if a company offers a bank of PTO for vacation or illness, some employees will want to save all their time for vacation. Some companies offer pay for unused sick leave. Other employees will not call out sick because they worry people may think they are lying. Then you have the employees that may actually be sick, but they are so busy they do not want to get behind.”

“Whatever the reason, it does result in sick employees coming into the workplace, being less than efficient, and, most likely, making others sick,” Narvaez says.

But continuing advances in telecommunications make it increasingly feasible for sick employees to work from home, allowing them to save their PTO time while avoiding spreading disease throughout the office. When should employers make this option available?

Working from home is often preferred to coming into the office, not just by those with an illness, so fake illnesses are again a concern here. And if an employee is truly sick, how effective and productive is the person going to be regardless of whether he or she is in the office or working from home?

In this feature, we discuss these and other questions and consider feedback from industry experts on best practices for sick employee work-from-home policies.

How Many Companies Allow Work from Home?

First, let’s consider the prevalence of work-from-home policies. As noted above, the technology supporting conference calls, document sharing, and video conferencing has made this an increasingly viable option across many industries.

Additionally, the recent spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has helped put increased emphasis and attention on work-from-home policies.

“Coronavirus is accelerating working from home, a trend that was already happening in many businesses and organizations,” says Lynda Lowe, group marketing director at Condeco Software. “According to our Modern Workplace 2019 report 41% of employers now offer some form of remote working and we expect that figure to be even higher in our next report due to be released in April,” she says.

The Right Technologies

We’ve mentioned advances in telecommunications technology a couple of times so far in this feature. But what specifically should companies be looking at in terms of telecommunications technologies to support remote working situations? Here are a few of the basics:

  • Teleconferencing—Most modern laptops, desktops, and even smartphones support a number of straightforward teleconferencing applications that allow for both conference calls and video conference calls. These are fundamental tools for any work-from-home arrangement.
  • Cloud-based document sharing—“Teams can work in real-time together using integrated solutions like Microsoft Teams tools, Google Docs or Dropbox Paper,” says Lowe.
  • Call forwarding and virtual numbers—There are a variety of solutions available for setting up virtual phone numbers and call forwarding such that when an internal or external stakeholder calls a number, the intended recipient will get the call, whether the person is at his or her desk or next to his or her smartphone.
  • Employee tracking tools—Charlotte Conroy, MBA, managing partner and director of business development and marketing for Recent Communications, notes that there are technologies available for both call reporting, which allows managers to have accurate data on volume of phone calls, talk time, and other information, and real-time activity status, which lets management quickly see who is active on phone calls and who has been idle for a period of time. 

The Right Policies

There are two primary questions around work-from-home policies for sick employees. The first is when work from home is available. There is a balance required between avoiding abuse and avoiding extensive and cumbersome criteria for when work from home is available for sick employees.

In general, employers should consider a policy stating that employees should stay home if they suspect they have an infectious disease, including colds and flus, and that employees should take sick time (instead of work from home) if their illness will prevent them from being effective in their job.

The second question surrounds how employees need to conduct themselves when working remotely. At the most basic level, remote employees need to understand that working remotely is a privilege and that they are expected to be just as productive and responsive as in-office staff. With this in mind, necessary policies are fairly intuitive. For example:

  • Employees need to respect their work hours while remote.
  • Employees need to be available via phone, e-mail, etc., during their work hours.

Lowe suggests having a daily meeting with remote employees and asking these three questions:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • What might impede you from achieving these tasks?

These questions lead to our next section: monitoring.

Monitoring Remote Employees

The classic question for managers of remote staff is how to monitor whether those staff are actually working as they’re supposed to. In general, we should note that employees should generally not be given the privilege of working from home if there is a legitimate concern they will abuse that privilege based on their past performance or behavior.

However, not all employees have a track record that will enable an employer to make that determination. In the case of an illness, managers may need to make a quick decision.

There are a number of technological tools available for monitoring remote employees’ activities, but it is ultimately the responsibility of employees’ managers to ensure they get their work done.

“If employees are using a remote log in system, there is likely some sort of monitoring function,” says Narvaez. “Perhaps there are reports that can be generated to show how much work was performed. For the most part, monitoring at-home workers comes down to the supervisors who will know if the work is being done.”

The fast spread and intense media coverage of the COVID-19 virus have placed renewed attention on work-from-home arrangements for sick or presumably sick employees, but the issue is far from new.

Continually improving technologies make work-from-home arrangements increasingly viable for workers across a wide spectrum of industries. It’s up to employers to decide when these arrangements are appropriate and to implement and enforce suitable policies to make these arrangements effective.