Employers are setting rules on home offices. Yes, the one in your home.

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Employers are starting to set stringent expectations on home office setups. So, would you let your employer take a virtual tour of your home office, or would you show them the door?

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Image: GettyImages/Alexander Spatari

Halfway through year two of remote work at scale, companies are implementing more stringent policies about remote setups and network security. Over the last year, the line between work and personal life has blurred and the latest home workspace policies further muddy the waters. While there are legalities and injury claim concerns at play, employers may need to ensure they are on the same page as their employees or risk losing their top talent.

SEE: IT expense reimbursement policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Execs and employees are not seeing eye to eye

Earlier this month, Gartner published a report outlining a number of "gaps" in perception among company leaders and employees regarding the "future employee experience." The findings detail a number of areas where employee sentiment about work operations and communication are not aligned with executive perceptions.

Overall, 66% of employees felt they had the required technology to "effectively work remotely," compared to the vast majority of executives (80%). Similarly, 76% of executives felt as though the company has "invested in providing them with resources that allow them to work the way they would onsite in a virtual environment," yet only 59% of employees agreed with this.

Additionally, 50% agreed that company leadership has "expressed a preference for work conditions to return to their pre-pandemic model," compared to 71% of respondent executives,

These figures illustrate rather marked divides between these two groups. So, what are some of the reasons to explain this?

"The simplest answer is that workers have different needs from executives – and I might go as far as saying that they have greater needs than executives, as [it] relates specifically to the resources that enable them to work from home productively – and these needs might not be fully understood by employers yet," said Alexia Cambon, research director in the Gartner HR practice.

While there are a number of potential factors behind this disconnect, financial considerations could also be at play. Compared to executives, Cambon explained that junior-level employees are "less likely to have the financial means to set up a productive home office." Similarly, she made note of child care provisions that may be less readily available to non-executive employees.

There could also be various internalizations and perspective differences at play. For example, Cambon said that a "resource that allows [people] to work as they would onsite in a virtual environment" could have two very different meanings for employees and executives: Situationally, this resource might mean translate as a "nanny" for entry-level employees, while it could be interpreted as an extra monitor to executives, she added.

"The difference between these two needs is stark and this variation is causing significant challenges for organizations who are trying to funnel investments in an equitable way," Cambon said.

Home office policy and legal concerns

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the shift  to remote work, the initial focus for many companies was ensuring business continuity. Entering year two of remote work, organizations are starting to establish rules for home office setups. While company rules regarding the appearance and functionality of spaces inside their own homes may seem intrusive, there are legalities and insurance concerns to bear in mind.

"Suppose an employee with a desk and computer in the corner of their bedroom trips on a mess of cables and smacks their head against the stair rail. If that happened in the office, the employee would have a workers' compensation claim, and the employer would be insured," said Jonathan Orleans, chair of the labor and employment law practice at Pullman & Comley.

As Orleans pointed out, if such an injury occurs at the home workspace, this instance brings up a number of questions regarding whether or not an employee has a claim and if the employer is covered. Furthermore, he said it's important for companies to communicate with their workers' compensation carrier to understand if they cover remote work claims and these employees.

"The carrier may have standards for home workplaces that you will need to communicate to employees in a written set of policies as part of a remote work agreement," he said.

And a number of companies are starting to do just that: Provide employees with specific rules outlining home office expectations and equipment requirements. Although some companies are making suggestions, alongside requirements and using additional tactics to ensure the space meets the mark.

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Image: GettyImages/RgStudio

Stipends, suggestions and virtual workspace tours

Harriet Chan, a co-founder of CocoFinder, said the company requires all remote workers to have high-speed internet access and a "specially dedicated office area in their homes away from distractions," noting that this space should have "proper lighting for high-quality video conferencing." To help with these remote work arrangements, Chan said the company covers half of employees' home internet bills and provides employees with a stipend for furnishings.

These policies and requirements bring up interesting points related to oversight and accountability. Plus, in the age of virtual backgrounds, how will employers truly know if an employee is in a dedicated space, festooned with all the work policy fixings?

Daniela Sawyer, founder and business development strategist at FindPeopleFast.net, said the company encourages employees to have a balance of natural and artificial light in their workspace, maintain proper ventilation as well as adequate insulation to mitigate outside disturbances and more.

Additionally, the company makes a series of home office suggestions, specifically recommending that remote workers maintain a home office temperature of 23-25 degrees Celsius; the same range the company uses at the in-person office, Sawyer explained.

"But this is also not mandatory for all as it depends on personal comfort so we tried to keep it flexible as per the convenience of the employees," Sawyer said. 

To help with these remote work accommodations and recommendations, the company has provided employees with $1,000, Sawyer said, and uses a virtual tour to "cross-check" the remote workspace and ensure proper use of the allocated funds.

As the great remote work experiment transforms into the new normal of work, more stringent standards related to home office requirements could become the standard. But, this all brings up an interesting question regarding repercussions for noncompliance.

"Every company needs a written remote work policy that employees sign. And it has to have teeth. You have to put in consequences of what happens if people don't adhere to the policy," said Jim Parise, president of IT managed services provider Kelser Corporation.

Office security by design

Aside from background disturbances and poor lighting on video calls, there are also myriad security standards to consider with hybrid work arrangements, as employees log on from their home networks and a mixed back of corporate and personal devices. On this topic, Parise said companies can also establish separate standards for employees who choose to use their own devices and workers who use company-provided devices.

"Employees doing BYOD should have more limited access. If you're providing mobile devices, you may want to consider MDM (mobile device management), so that you can remotely wipe and lock lost or stolen devices," Parise said.

For companies seeking guidance on their cybersecurity policy, Parise suggested using a guide crafted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"They really lay it out. Follow this document and you're going to have a very robust, secure remote workforce," Parise said.

Requirements and policy "teeth" aside, the first step for companies and employees may be effectively communicating general expectations regarding home office and network security expectations and working from there. But, as Matt Martin, co-founder and CEO of Clockwise, points out, these policies will also help employees hold employers accountable.

"The key to making those models most effective going forward is to set, communicate, and regularly update your norms through a remote work policy and agreement," Martin said. "A remote work policy and agreement articulates what the company expects of remote workers and what the remote workers can expect of the company."

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids' education is a mammoth task. Here's how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The communication aspect brings the conversation full circle and could help employers and employees see eye to eye regarding the role, needs and expectations to fulfill their individual responsibilities. This discourse could be a timely consideration for companies amid a Great Resignation, a tight labor market and employee burnout.

"If employers fail to take this variation in needs and individual circumstances into account, they will ultimately design a future work model that is not inclusive, and this will likely lead to higher levels of disengagement, dissatisfaction and ultimately attrition –  not to mention burn-out and fatigue," Cambon said.

Many companies are still adapting to their hybrid and fully remote frameworks as the delta variant adds uncertainty to office reentry timelines. However, while initial drafting and amending these policies, companies have an opportunity to build policies that support employees and the company as a whole.

To accomplish this, Cambon explained that conversations regarding the future of work plans need to include all employees across an organization.

"Otherwise, the organization risks relying on a "one-size-fits-all" approach that does not really fit anyone at all," Cambon said.

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