Keeping the Faith, Avoiding ‘Time Theft’ With Good Policies…And A Little Trust

This year has taken working from home from being a once-occasional luxury to a practical necessity. Once something only seen on the Jetsons, advances in technology had begun to make working from home a viable solution for some businesses throughout the past decade. Now, as we navigate through a global pandemic 2020 has turned telecommuting into an everyday reality. These concerns are serious – a recent report in Ontario showed that the largest percentage of new outbreaks has come not from patrons attending restaurants or shopping malls, but from crowded workplaces where employees have returned to work prematurely, before the spread of COVID-19 is truly under control.

Of course, this sudden thrust into a virtual era is not without its challenges. Many businesses scrambled to provide improved home technology for their workers, especially if their job would not have been feasible from home without upgrades. Others quickly found it necessary to adjust their working style, such as realizing that any large-scale video conferencing meeting (including sessions of Canadian parliament) inevitably opens with participants not realizing that their microphones were accidentally on mute.

Most of these situations require simple fixes, and perhaps a bit of extra patience. However, as the working-from-home model becomes more prevalent, it has raised some questions from employers about the potential for employee time theft and how to deal with this type of issue.

Those pesky smartphones can be hard to ignore

It is true that, with the latest cell phones able to do everything but cook breakfast, workplace distractions have become a significant issue for many employers. It never looks good for a business if a new customer or client walks in, and the first person behind the counter that they see is too busy playing games or taking selfies to greet them. Smartphones now feature apps designed to be addictive, which can pull from any worker’s focus on their required duties.

These are not the only distractions that employees can have at home. Unfettered internet access, multiple streaming services, and a nearby kitchen are all potential culprits that can pull an employee away from their duties at a home-based office. Grabbing a quick snack or answering the door may be one thing, but getting caught up in a Facebook conversation or a YouTube binge watch can take significant time away from one’s priorities. Employers are concerned that while employees may be discouraged from this sort of behaviour in an office, they have less chance of getting ‘caught’ while working from home.

The best solution may just be hiring the right people

However, our combined experience in HR allows us to have a deeper insight into the employer-employee relationship that goes beyond just policies and procedures. While we understand that employers are responsible for protecting the interests of their business, we have also witnessed the very best efforts of loyal, dedicated employees who are committed to the success of everyone in their workplace. Even if many of these employees may technically be ‘guilty’ of responding to the odd text message through the day, they spend the vast majority of their time working hard, and in good faith, to do the best job they possibly can.

We are also mindful that this is not an easy year for anyone, and a truly difficult year for businesses. Employers are worried about their businesses simply surviving this tumultuous time.  Many  are desperately figuring out how to quickly pivot for a rapidly changing world without losing the cash flow necessary for them to continue operations. Employees too are nervous, not only for the future of their jobs if their employers run into difficulty, but for the health and safety of themselves and their families. This is especially true if they are working on the front lines and required to go into a physical premises, but everyone has been struggling this year with adapting to an ever-changing ‘new normal.’

The solution?

Our firm frequently drafts and helps implement technology policies for employers that restrict the use of cell phones and other distractions in the workplace. An employment contract requires that an employee will work certain hours at certain duties, and during those hours will devote their time fully and completely to the employer’s interests. Any workplace policies in place have the power to enforce this relationship, such as limiting personal cell phone use during working hours, or prohibiting visits to external websites on company internet. Employers have the ability to exert a fair amount of control over workplace conditions, and many do in order to keep their operations running smoothly. Even still though, while infractions of these policies may be subject to discipline, these are usually minor issues and the behaviour is capable of being corrected. In our experience this sort of conduct rarely meets the legal standard for a ‘just cause’ termination.

In that same spirit, this is a time where everyone deserves a bit of extra patience and understanding, including employees working from home. Most people’s work from home set-ups are imperfect at best, and often coincide with small children, beloved pets, or elderly relatives, all of whom may require attention at certain points in the day. Smart employers have built additional accommodations into their virtual workplace, such as flexible hours where possible to accommodate for potential home-schooling requirements, or some extra generosity with break periods to allow employees to perform necessary personal tasks through the day. In our view, this is not “time theft”, but rather employers setting employees up for success.

Our Final Thoughts:

For Employees

For Employers

If you are an employer looking to draft policies that keep your workplace both positive and productive, or if you are an employee who believes you have not been accommodated appropriately or have been wrongfully accused of time theft, we can help. Please reach out to us for assistance at [email protected] or complete our contact form here