Many of us are working from home for the first time, which means we are just be learning how it differs from working in-person with coworkers. I must admit that the novelty I felt working from home during March through May has worn off and now I miss the ability to keep my work and home lives separate. But, here we are and we must all make the best of it!
One thing I’ve heard from law firm managers (human resources, office managers and even partners) is that they find it harder to be sure that everyone is doing their jobs. But also, they worry about ensuring that their virtual workplace is safe, respectful, free of sexual harassment, and other forms of discrimination.
The work that’s happening in your employees’ homes and the interactions among employees are all part of the workplace you’re responsible for managing. The law and your company’s policies haven’t changed because people are working remotely.
It’s easy to believe that workplace harassment and discrimination are only a problem when employees are together in one location. Yet, these issues can be just as much, if not more of a problem, in a remote work environment. There are four reasons for this:
- At home, we feel more relaxed and casual. Our behavior reflects how we feel. Sometimes this causes us not to be as professional as we should be.
- Everyone is physically isolated. It’s harder for anyone to monitor the work environment. When your coworker acts badly, whether intentionally or not, it’s less likely anyone will be there to step in and address the problem.
- Some coworkers, mistakenly, assume standard workplace conduct policies don’t apply when they are working at their kitchen table.
- Finally, the stress and loneliness that, for some, comes with working on their own, may cause them to act out inappropriately.
So, how do you address these challenges when you are also remotely managing people?
Set Clear Expectations
The first thing you can do to avoid potential problems is to make sure your law firm’s expectations are clear. You might do this one-on-one with employees, especially as problems arise. You could also cover it in a meeting. That conversation should cover the following:
- Review the applicable policies.
- Talk about potential scenarios that you anticipate could cause problems.
- Give team members a chance to ask questions.
- Remind people they can come to you, HR, or another member of the management team with their concerns.
Share The Fundamentals
To stay on the right side of the harassment line when in a remote environment, there are a few simple principles to let all employees know:
- First, everything learned about sexual harassment and illegal workplace discrimination applies in a work-from-home environment.
- Treat all coworkers as a coworkers, regardless of the time of day, the day of the week, or whether you’re interacting with them in person, via the internet, or on the phone.
Of course, employees will see and hear things they would never normally experience in a traditional office environment. (Dogs barking, babies crying, multiple Amazon deliveries, etc.) They need to know to not make comments about it, even if they’re trying to be funny. Some people won’t have a concern about what is said but it’s likely someone will. Always avoid commenting about what you notice in the background.
For example, one of the most common rules in sexual harassment training is not to make comments about people’s appearance. We may not be used to seeing coworkers on our screens, which may lead us to look at them with a more critical eye.
Handling Inappropriate Behavior
When you see a problem, you need to take action. If you witness something and think it’s just bad judgment or lack of knowledge, as a manager, consider a quick coaching conversation. If the conversation during a meeting or in an online chat gets a little risky, you can redirect the conversation or more directly tell folks that the conversation is wading into dangerous waters.
Here are some tips to make your work-from-home environment a safe place to work:
- Make sure your background doesn’t give up information you would prefer to stay private. Try a virtual background.
- Dress professionally. You may be at home, but you are still working. You may be dressed casually, but you shouldn’t look like you just came from the beach, the gym, or a night on the town.
- Whether you’re communicating by email, text, or in an app like Teams or Slack, those interactions need to stay professional. When we think about our coworkers as friends, we might let our more natural and informal impulses play out online. The rule is simple: If you shouldn’t say it to the person or about the person, you shouldn’t send it online either.
We’re all learning how to navigate technology and what it means to be a manager and a teammate in the virtual world. We can set a good example with our behavior and act when we experience problems, either when directed at us or others.
If you need compliance and harassment training for your law firm, contact Savvy today.