As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to disrupt pretty much every industry on Earth, an increasing number of companies have canceled conferences, business travel, and in-person meetings to prevent the virus from spreading to employees, colleagues, and customers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested working remotely as a way to slow the virus’s spread, and the American Federation of Government Employees is urging all federal and city governments to allow employees to work from home if possible. But while some big companies like Google and Microsoft have directed people to start working from home, plenty of others are still telling their employees to commute to the office, even though the nature of their work makes it unnecessary.
This leaves a lot of workers wondering how to get their workplaces to change course and let people avoid commuting and working in close proximity with each other. We asked several experts how employees and freelancers can persuade their companies to allow them to work from home, when feasible.
Bring coworkers together to make the ask as a team
The first step may be turning to your colleagues, said Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, a nonprofit organization that represents LGBTQ union members and their allies.
“Collective action is always more effective than going it alone,” Davis said. “They should organize coworkers, … get everyone else on board, and go together as a team.”
Rafael Espinal, executive director of the Freelancers Union, suggested workers “build a consensus and address their concerns with both their direct supervisor and high level executives. This is a public health issue that is affecting everyone, and all levels of management at times need to hear from employees to help them take appropriate actions.”
Draw on the power of a union, if you can
Freelancers may be hesitant to ask about such arrangements, lest they get labeled as “troublemakers” or risk losing their jobs. Coming together as a group may lessen the blow, Espinal said. He also encouraged freelancers who are able to organize to contact the Freelancers Union if they need help facilitating these communications.
Davis added that working people who are in a union already have an infrastructure for this type of advocacy, so they should talk to their union representatives about how to take their concerns to management.
Put it in writing
From there, workers will want to make contact with their supervisor to ask whether they can work from home either in person or in a written communication via email or a letter. “If workers’ concerns don’t gain traction after an initial conversation,” Espinal said, “workers should unite behind written correspondence addressed to the owners of the company.”
Such a letter should outline facts on why working from home would be beneficial to their employees and business.
Point out that it’s in your employer’s best interest
“One thing to keep in mind is an unhealthy employee is not going to be productive at all. If an employer is insisting employees come into the office, and that results in a number of employees getting sick, productivity is going to be lost from those employees,” said Jennifer Dorning, president of the AFL-CIO department for professional employees.
The letter should point out that COVID-19 is transmissible even when people aren't showing any symptoms, that the CDC has suggested remote working as a way to stop the virus’ spread, and to mention any other companies or public leaders who have asked employees to work from home.
Acknowledge that there might be some big obstacles
Even if you get your company to agree to let you work from home, that decision can start a chain reaction of other issues. More robust technology needs and security may be at stake with certain offices where workers don’t necessarily have all the know-how to work remotely.
“In companies where some employees have the sort of job that requires them to always be present while others are allowed to work remotely,” Davis said, “feelings of unequal treatment and lower worker morale can easily occur.”
Since past outbreaks like Ebola and Swine Flu prompted employers and local governments to prepare, a lot of them already may have plans in place to modify working arrangements, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). But while more technologies like Zoom and Slack allow employees to be productive at home, not all companies have adopted these technologies, can equip their employees with the computer equipment necessary to work from home, or know how to effectively integrate teleworking technology into their workflow.
Furthermore, companies that use private networks and systems may not have the IT bandwidth or security measures to suddenly support large numbers of teleworking employees handling potentially sensitive data.
Working “online is not a panacea,” Weingarten said. Doing so, she added, requires that employees are adequately “trained to do it.... It’s not like [all workers] have had the training and professional development to do this. And what happens if you’re putting all your work stuff on a private tablet, and what happens in terms of privacy?”
Consider making suggestions for how to structure a work-from-home scenario
Rachel Pelta of FlexJobs, a site that specializes in remote, freelance and flexible work, writes that employees should have a clear understanding of the technical gear required to telecommute, the channels from which employees will receive official company updates and work assignments, and whether employees will occasionally need to come into the office. Employees should also expect to check-in with their managers online more frequently than they might have had to in the past.
“Generally, there are requirements to make sure employees are productive whether that be through check-ins with supervisors or daily reports of completed work,” Dorning said.
Companies may need to test out any new software before they begin letting employees work from home. To this end, some have been trying temporary pilot programs to test productivity and new workflows amid the shift to telecommuting.
There’s no telling exactly how this pandemic will affect workplaces and life in general. It’s only a matter of time before more schools close, requiring more parents to stay home from the office without adequate child care.
And then of course, there are tons of jobs that cannot be done from home in any form.
“A great many jobs simply can’t be done remotely. Cars can’t be made from home. Flight attendants can’t serve drinks and keep us safe if they’re working from the airport lounge,” Davis said. “This is why, in a crisis like this, it’s often government intervention that is needed to ensure working people don’t suffer when they do have to take time away from work, especially when that time off is involuntary due to a shutdown or lack of work.”