The coronavirus pandemic makes work confusing and lacking in clear purpose. Workplace closures have forced nonessential employees to work from home, spin their wheels on endless Zoom conferences, and try to arrive at some semblance of normalcy. With the world economy in a medically-induced coma, demand for nonessential labor is at an all-time low. Precious few jobs seem secure. Many regularly scheduled meetings and events have been canceled. Consumer demand has flatlined.
But there are still things that need to get done, even as working parents shift schedules and balance child care and home schooling with job demands. Stirring up work-related stress at this time just seems outright cruel. Smart managers recognize that — a recent Gallup workplace analysis found that in times of crisis, the best leaders offer trust, compassion, stability and hope. There are certainly ways for parents to communicate their needs with their manager as they work from home. Not every boss, however, is a great leader.
What Good Managers Should Understand During Covid-19
Instead of responding to our current workplace challenges with resilience and empathy, some may be processing the moment’s ambient anxiety as a call for heightened surveillance and increased control. And unfortunately, remote workers can’t do much about it.
Working from home is the new normal. But even weeks in, it can still feel far more new than normal. Management expert and “Ask a Manager” advice columnist Alison Green says employers need to recognize how confusing and disruptive remote work can be for many workers, especially parents.
“They’re getting used to working from home for the first time, or they’re working from home with young kids there, or without the right equipment, or are simply under a lot of stress,” Green says. “As most of us are.”
Telecommuting predates COVID-19, of course. But, for many, it was an optional privilege taken by employees and they were prepared. By contrast, today’s remote workforce had telecommuting thrust upon them. Managers need to account for how difficult the change can be and that parents in particular will likely need to have different schedules to work around their children’s needs.
“It’s not a matter of just working from a different location; so much more than that is different,” Green says. “So employers need to be rigorous about reassessing priorities, pushing back everyone that’s not essential, and giving people as much flexibility as they can.”
Managers, Green says, need to drastically reassess what they require of employees during Covid-19, particularly parents. “Realistically, someone who’s working with young kids around because schools and daycares have closed isn’t going to be as productive as they were in the office,” she says. “There’s no possible way for that to happen.”
Unfortunately, some employers still expect pre-pandemic productivity. A number of tech companies have reportedly sought tech ways to keep them accountable. Recode reports that demand for time-tracking and productivity monitoring software like Time Doctor and HubStaff has exploded under quarantine. The tracking programs’ invasiveness varies. Some require workers to self-report their hours, while others permit managers to remotely view computer screens to make sure employees are on task.
Green cautions against increased monitoring of remote workers. Overbearing management can sow distrust and build resentment among employees. “Managing effectively when people are remote isn’t about stepping up your oversight of them,” she says
How Working Parents Can Handle Unreasonable Bosses
Firstly, it’s important that parents communicate directly with their managers to suggest flexible schedules add reassurance about getting things done during Covid-19. If a boss is overstepping, parents can gently tell them that’s a poor managerial strategy. But this is America, and that’s a risky bet. As labor law attorney and Rutgers Law School Professor Alan Hyde notes, America lags most of the world in worker protection.
“I’ve been a labor law professor in the United States for a very long time,” Hyde says. “I’m used to [non-Americans] looking at me and saying ‘employers can do what? They can fire you for no reason at all? You don’t have paid vacations in the United States. What’s the matter with your working people, why don’t they demand it?’”
In 2017, France enacted a “right to disconnect” law prohibiting employers from expecting workers to check and reply to professional communications outside of work hours (similar laws have been proposed or adopted in Italy, India, Canada, and elsewhere). The French government mandates a 35-hour work week, so French workers are afforded plenty of Liberté from logging on to work email. In New York City, people work 49 hours per week on average; eight hours of that are for email. Big Apple officials proposed a right to disconnect bill in 2018 to offer relief from the always-on-call drudgery. If passed into law, New York would be the place in America where workers have the right to unplug.
In the absence of laws spelling out remote workers’ rights, Americans working from home have few legal protection in management disputes. As long as it’s established company policy, employers are free to monitor their remote employees’ productivity, work hours, and professional communications. There’s no law stopping a manager from expecting a prompt reply to a 3 a.m. email. If they do expect round-the-clock attention, works should track their hours. They may be entitled to overtime.
“Just because you’re working at home, you’re not exempt from hourly laws,” Hyde says. “If the work week goes over 40 hours and you’re not an exempt employee, or a high paid executive and you’re just an ordinary person working at home, and the employer demands more than 40 hours, then I would think the employer has to pay time-and-a-half or whatever the statute requires.”
In addition to overtime, other workplace regulations stay in effect when employees work from home.
“Obviously, all the other labor statutes apply,” Hyde says. “You can’t treat people differently by race or gender. You can’t make special accommodations for the male employees and not the female employees.”
Most labor statutes hinge on discrimination or workplace safety issues. As a result, they provide little help when remotely battling bosses who act unreasonable without discrimination. State laws protecting whistleblowers, like New Jersey’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act, shield people who report workplace wrongdoing from retaliation. Supervisors who physically abuse, threaten, or stalk employees can be subject to criminal charges. But California is the sole state with a law pertaining to workplace harassment — and that law doesn’t make workplace harassment illegal or give harassed workers the rights to sue. It just requires large companies to train managers about workplace abuse.
State and federal guidelines don’t exist, protections for workers vary by employer. This is the same whether you’re in the office or at home. If employers don’t have a set procedure for reporting abuse, workers might get results by thinking strategically. For example, there can be safety in numbers. Green says that addressing problems alongside your coworkers can get your employer to take you more seriously. “If you’re all pushing for something, it’s harder to shut you down or penalize you for it,” she says.
Additionally, convincing co-workers to go along with your gripes can afford more legal protection than you’d have as an individual. The Wagner Act prevents employers from retaliating against employees taking group action. While originally intended as a protection for union organizing, it now, as Hyde notes, includes group actions that don’t look at all like a union — including social media posts.
“That includes things like Twitter and Facebook feeds,” he says. “If the employees are talking to each other online and griping about the boss, they are protected. They can’t be retaliated against.”
In a time of record-high unemployment, standing up to a boss can be daunting. But remember: the pandemic won’t last forever. If you’re too scared to push back now, put your energy into getting your resume ready to go out the second it’s over.
“Employers have to accommodate people right now if they want to have employees who are invested in them long-term,” Green says. “People will remember how their employers treated them during this time.”