Is Twitter Trending? The Company Decides on Permanent Remote Work

18 May 2020 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Authors: Brooke C. Bahlinger

Employers have had to contend with a flood of new legal considerations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To survive under various state and local shelter-in-place mandates, employers have instituted remote (or work-from-home) protocols – some willingly and some out of necessity. Now, many states are permitting employers to reopen in phases. 

As employers work towards bringing workers back on site, some high-profile employers, like Twitter, have made the business decision to continue to allow their employees to work remotely for the indefinite future. Given these developments, employers and employees alike may be questioning what the future holds for their work environments. 

On May 12, 2020, Twitter announced that most of its employees may choose to work from home indefinitely or (when the time comes) return to the physical work environment. This COVID-19-inspired decision comes at a time when companies are realizing the benefits of remote work. The Twitter model calls for employees to choose: (1) remote work; or (2) coming to the office (but with specific restrictions and health and safety protocols).  This announcement comes on the heels of a number of other companies recently extending remote work through the end of 2020. 

But what do employees want? And will other employers follow suit?

As companies make business decisions about operating in the “new normal,” many employers have recognized the benefits of allowing employees to continue to work remotely. Avoiding a physical office space lowers overhead costs, eliminating utility, rent, housekeeping, and other upkeep-related expenses. Additionally, employers have realized the utility of connection-based technology to ensure that meetings and collaboration still take place.  And limiting employees’ physical, on-site presence should reduce potential liability related to returning to work amid the COVID-19 uncertainty.

In addition to these benefits, some studies show that remote work leads to a positive work-life balance for employees. For employees, the upsides may include the elimination of long and costly commutes to the office, cost savings from not having to invest in work-appropriate attire (even in a business casual environment), and the ability to spend more time with friends and family (if allowed, according to COVID-19 guidance and best practices). 

While these trailblazers see the upside of remote work, many employees (and employers alike) may be questioning whether remote work is truly the best option for their personal lives and businesses. Although both groups have made great strides in adjusting to the pandemic circumstances, remote work carries many challenges. Employers of a large telecommuting workforce will face a myriad of complicated legal issues, including challenges related to protecting company data, workers’ compensation coverage for injuries at home, and determining how to navigate a patchwork of payroll, unemployment, and other laws in locations where employees are physically performing their duties.  Critics of indefinite remote work say that remote work leads to lower productivity and less personal collaboration. Additionally, employers may prefer that employees work at the office because they are more accountable in the physical workplace. 

Employees, too, may be resistant to this new type of working environment. Many Americans today are balancing the new realities of virtual schooling and child care with remote work obligations. As the future is still uncertain, employees may find that remote work brings other challenges, as their personal lives become intermingled with their careers. 

If the switch to permanent remote work is successful, these companies may set an unprecedented trend away from a physical office space by remaining in a purely virtual work environment.  Here are some takeaways in light of COVID-19 remote work: 

Upsides

  • Lowers overhead costs 
  • Promotes a healthy work-life balance 
  • Lowers potential liability upon returning to work 
  • Promotes employee choice and morale
  • Utilizes available connection-based technology 
  • Positive environmental effects as there is less commuting
  • Lowers employees’ investment in work-appropriate attire

Downsides 

  • Lowers camaraderie and sense of belonging to the organization
  • Increased compliance issues resulting from having “company locations” in a multitude of states and municipalities
  • Decreased loyalty to the organization 
  • Inhibits relationship-building 
  • May lead to job loss as employers begin recruiting outside of the city where the physical office is located 
  • Security (including information security) concerns with certain remote technologies 
  • Satisfying employers’ obligation to provide a safe workplace
  • Workers’ compensation concerns for employers having to deal with a multitude of state and local laws depending on where employees are physically located
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