Companies, workers adapt to working from home challenges

Jordan Simpson has adjusted to the work-from-home lifestyle.

Jordan Simpson has learned to go with the flow.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the United States last year, Simpson was working in higher education as a recruiter. Beginning in March,  she was forced by the pandemic, to work full time from home, changing to a hybrid work environment in the summer. Then, recently, she changed professions, working in the manufacturing industry. The fact that she could easily do her work all from home with her new job made the change in professions smoother.

“In higher education, it changed almost all the aspects of how work was done,” Simpson said. “Previously, I would travel to schools, college fairs, et cetera. With all of them closed down, all visits, fairs and events were virtual, which was a unique experience. In my current role, a lot of the work and training is able to be done from home, thankfully.”

Simpson has found what many employees and their employers are discovering – adapting to the pandemic is not much different than any business adapting to market changes. The adaptation has taught us a lot about how we work. It’s made some companies rethink the concept of the nine-to-five workday, and others are realizing that remote work doesn’t necessarily mean less productivity and that more meetings aren’t always the answer to a problem.

From a logistical standpoint, Simpson hasn’t experienced any challenges. She already had her own work space at home, and no child care issues. For months she would go several days not connecting with co-workers via phone or video chat, which she admitted could be difficult and depressing. But experiencing that, she made an effort to make sure to connect with co-workers more frequently and to remain as positive as possible.

“In the company I work for now, there are numerous team meetings that I get to be a part of, which keeps morale up,” Simpson said. “Logistically, being part of bigger meetings virtually can be a little choppy at times, but overall, it’s been fine.”

Logistics aren’t the only concern. Getting out of the office may sound wonderful at first, but ironically, mental health issues have crept into the new work environment. Over time, many employees may experience unanticipated mental health consequences from mandated remote work. According to a report from Forbes, two causes for concern are isolation and burnout. Remote work is a common trend in many industries today, especially tech and business services; many are already familiar with how the solitude of working remotely can impact mental health. For those who are accustomed to and appreciative of conventional “office life” and a steady rate of social interactions at the office, the shift to remote work as a result of social distancing procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic might cause a surprising, even if relatively mild, deterioration of mental health which can lead to burnout. Being cognizant of such issues is the first step in maintaining morale, and thus overall productivity.

Take Barr Engineering. Barr provides engineering and environmental consulting services to clients across North America and around the world and has a huge footprint in the Northland. When the pandemic hit, Barr formed a crisis management team early to create process documentation, monitor the pandemic’s impact on the company’s ability to support its clients safely, make decisions around safety protocols and office closings and openings, and communicate with employees, especially in the area of mental health. In short, they were on the ball early and quickly. 

“Initially, offices were closed to all but essential staff, as required by state directives,” said Dan Giedd, vice president and chief human resources officer at Barr. “As the pandemic evolved over the months that followed, the company reopened its offices at limited capacity levels, while implementing social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures.”

Barr’s pro-active efforts, said Giedd, has ensured the company fared well in 2020, in part because they took early action to manage overhead costs in anticipation of a challenging year, but also the plain fact that their services remained in demand. Like Simpson, Barr employees have adapted well to working from home, with some loving the flexibility, while others are yearning to get back to the office and back to normal. 

Normal was in short supply in 2020, not only for Barr, but for other Northland-based businesses, like Maurices. As with other large companies, Maurices temporarily closed its 900-plus stores for about three months when the pandemic hit, depending on state and local mandates. George Goldfarb, president and CEO, said the majority of home office associates in Duluth, St. Paul and New York, continue to work remotely, with some offices, like in Duluth, available if needed. The hope, he said, is to open offices more fully this summer, assuming it is safe to do so.

“Throughout this crisis, customer and associate health and safety has been our number one priority,” said Goldfarb. “We have rigorous safety protocols in place, including, ‘Our Caring For You Promise,’ which, I believe, transparently explains to customers and associates our efforts to keep their health and safety as a top priority.” 

In Minnesota, the Workplace Safety Consultation office, part of the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration, provides voluntary and confidential workplace safety and assistance to Minnesota businesses, with a priority for small businesses, to include on-site consultation, training, education and outreach in general industry and construction settings. It’s a unique office, said its director, Tyrone Taylor, in that while it’s a consultation arm of MNOSHA, its services are completely separate from MNOSHA compliance.

Taylor said that his office, like the rest under the DLI, face the same challenges as many other businesses. They telework while attempting to continue to offer the same level of quality safety and health assistance to Minnesota employers and employees. 

“We were also tasked with contributing to the creation of several COVID-19 guidance documents that were used throughout multiple industries,” said Taylor. “Logistically, this was a difficult task during the initial stages while we were adapting to the speed in which the virus spread across the state.”

Safety, when combined with business, and working from home, naturally leads to liability. That’s where Mark Kulda comes in. He’s vice president of public affairs at the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, and he’s frankly surprised more people are not concerned about the insurance aspect of employees working from home during the pandemic. 

Kulda pointed out that there are three different facets of working from home that have to be addressed, depending on how the work from home situation was arrived at. These facets are, according to Kulda, from the perspective of an employer with home-based employees, the home-based employees who work for someone else and home-based employees who work for themselves, either as freelance or who own their own business.

First off, employers

“Employers need to let their insurance broker know they have home-based some or many of their employees,” said Kulda. “They need to have this considered in their ‘Employer Liability Insurance’ coverages.  Brokers may recommend that employers set some home-work standards or even do inspections to ensure the employees home-work set up is safe.”

 Kulda further explained that employees working for employers need to clarify their insurance gap situation and have a conversation with their insurance agent about the depth of their home-work situation. In some cases, he said, they may need an additional rider on their homeowner’s coverage that protects business property that they don’t own.  

Kulda cited an example. “If a work-from-home employee has an expensive computer system given to them by their employer and the equipment is damaged by the homeowner’s negligence, then they are liable to replace the property,” he said.  “A standard homeowner’s insurance policy excludes coverage for business property, but insurers sell ‘riders’ that will cover this property for an additional premium, which is not very expensive at all. In addition, homeowners should strongly consider a Personal Umbrella Policy which adds additional liability coverage in case they cause an injury or damage to somebody else’s property.”

Furthermore, Kulda said even though a home-based employee is working for somebody else, the fact they are working from home could give a crafty personal injury lawyer a way to try to rope in the homeowner’s insurance and sue both the employer and the employee and get money from both. 

“So, if you are an employee why risk that personal liability?” said Kulda. “You can protect yourself and your assets by simply having an umbrella policy.  They are about $150 per year for $1 million.  My personal one is $195 a year for $2 million from a big auto insurance company.  They are easy to get and not very expensive.”

 Then there’s home-based business owners. Kulda said it is important for such owners to get a Business-Owners Policy or BOP, which are generally inexpensive,  sometimes about the same cost as an umbrella policy, and it takes the brunt of a lawsuit and lessens the exposure of an injured party trying to come after personal assets.

 “In all cases, the best advice is not to assume anything,” said Kulda. “Read your policies. Consult with your insurance agent, broker or company to find out if you have the right kind of coverages to protect you. This is especially important now that many workers are working from home. Many haven’t likely done much to assess their insurance situation. It would be very prudent to do so.”

While big business may be looking at liability issues, the average freelancer may not, like Ed Newman, who admitted he hasn’t given insurance related to his work any thought at all. Retired from a career in advertising and public relations, and now working on the side writing and blogging, Newman, like Simpson, is going with the flow, COVID or not. 

“Several months before I retired it dawned on me that this would become a whole new lifestyle for not only me but for my wife,” said Newman. “She was used to having the house all to herself all day. To make it easier for her, I made time to be out of the house frequently. COVID has significantly reduced lunches or coffee with friends, working on my laptop at Wussow’s, or hanging out at the library. One does learn to make adjustments, though. Go with the flow.”