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Telecommuting policies face test as coronavirus risk empties offices

March 17, 2020

While working from home reduces one risk, it heightens others related to cyber security and worker injury. Here’s what businesses and workers should know.

Coronavirus work from home

Days after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, office buildings around the world were emptying as businesses urged their employees to work from home. This social distancing strategy, designed to slow the spread of the virus, could bring the biggest test yet of remote work and the risks that come with it.

While the benefits of telework go beyond limiting exposure to the coronavirus, having potentially thousands more workers logging on to networks remotely and, in some cases, hastily setting up home offices, heightens other risks related to cyber security, personal safety and more.

“As telecommuting expands during this crisis, employers have less oversight of employees and their work environments – for example, whether they are properly using company-issued equipment and, more important, how they are doing in terms of physical and mental health,” said Julie Bolton, Vice President of Casualty Risk Engineering for Zurich North America. “Managers should be encouraged to have discussions with their employees about how they are doing working from home, and employees should be encouraged to raise any issues they are comfortable raising, either with their manager or a Human Resources representative.”

Coronavirus and telecommuting policies

Employers may want to consider amending existing work-from-home agreements from their Human Resources department and share them more broadly, to clearly scope out role expectations and protocols particularly for employees who do not typically work remotely.

Employers and employees also should be aware of the potential for technology glitches because of the surge in remote workers.

“As an employer, understand whether the network been set up for remote workers to access all the assets or systems they need off the premises,” said Nikki Ingram, a Senior Cybersecurity Risk Engineering Consultant for Zurich North America. “And do the systems you use, such as for virtual meetings, allow for an increased number of remote users? It’s possible to overrun capacity for people dialing in. Can your system support the higher workload and do you have plans for if it doesn’t?”

Employees, in turn, should make sure they have reliable Wi-Fi access. Those with newer Wi-Fi routers and with higher service levels from their internet service provider may be in better shape during peak usage. If bandwidth is an issue, disconnecting lower-priority devices from the Wi-Fi network can help, Ingram said.

Discussions between managers and employees should cover matters like those as well as the following:

  • Are specific working hours expected?
  • How and where can employees be reached if they’re working flexible hours?
  • How should an employee communicate if they are feeling ill?
  • Are any purchases reimbursable to create a functional remote workspace?
While managers do not need to know private and confidential medical information, they need to know if employees are able to perform work on a given day. Conversations also should cover expectations and instructions for virtual meetings, such as whether video participation is preferred. If it is, employees should be sure that they and their backdrop are prepared for being viewed, Ingram said. If audio participation is sufficient, a strip of electrical tape over a computer’s camera can protect privacy.

One more thing

Just because you are working from home does not mean you should become lax on hygiene guidelines for the coronavirus. Continue to wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds per round, keep your hands off your face, and wipe down every surface of your phone frequently.

“Employers may also want to explicitly state that employees should not host business colleagues, especially non-employees, in their homes, both to help mitigate risks associated with the coronavirus as well as general liability concerns,” Bolton said. “Make sure the expectations are clearly stated and understood.”

Telework agreements should place responsibility for safety in the home working environment on the employee. Employers can provide tips such as proper techniques for working ergonomically on a laptop and keeping the workplace free of trip hazards. Zurich customers can ask their Zurich Risk Engineer or representative for more information.

Employers’ HR departments should be involved to ensure that practices comply with local laws and other company policies. Note that statutory labor notices need to be accessible to employees while they’re teleworking.

“It’s important to remember that employers will generally have the same exposure to liability from work-related accidents as they would if the employee was working in the company office,” Bolton said.

In the new normal of telework, here are a few tips for businesses, governments, nonprofits and employees to keep in mind. This list is not comprehensive. Ask your Zurich Risk Engineer for more details.

Cyber security policy for remote working

Remote work on the scale we’re experiencing heightens digital perils like never before. For financial, healthcare and other businesses as well as federal and state agencies that deal with sensitive data, there’s little room for cracks in cyber security systems.

“As an employee, ensure you are complying with your company’s security standards as a remote worker,” Ingram said. “Everyone wants to get their job done, but if, for example, you’re having internet trouble at home and your service provider tells you to lower your security settings, talk to your employer’s technical support before doing that.”

To help ward off threats:

  • Employers should consider reminding employees to promptly install patches and updates, including to their anti-virus software, to all devices on their home network.
  • Consider advising employees to go into their Wi-Fi router’s management software to ensure it's running the latest firmware, which can update security flaws. “And make sure you have a strong password on your home Wi-Fi that’s unrelated to your work computer password,” Ingram said.
  • Remind employees to be wary of suspicious emails, downloads, USB drives or other things that could introduce malicious software onto their computer and into the network. These could include spoofing and phishing attacks from bad actors pretending to be IT personnel asking for your credentials.
  • Connection to corporate networks should be made using a secure means (e.g., a virtual private network). Businesses should remind employees of the availability of encrypted network drives where they can store data to avoid loss in the event of a computer virus or other malfunction.
If telecommuting employees work with confidential information, clarify acceptable work locations with employees. Working in venues such as coffee shops, if they remain open in the employee’s area, can heighten cyber risks.

Data security

While awareness of cyber risks has grown, physical documents and audible conversations also can lead to data breaches. Even at home, workers need to protect sensitive data of customers and others, particularly when their home may have more daytime occupants than usual:

  • Remind employees that if sensitive documents are printed, they should be stored in a locked office or cabinet. Employees should have a shredder available to use for discarded paper documents with sensitive information.
  • Employees also should note the laptop serial numbers and IT support phone number somewhere other than on the laptop so that any loss or malfunction can be promptly reported.
  • Employees should make sure work devices aren’t accessible to children when they step away.
“Nobody wants to find out that their computer no longer works because a child thought it was a family device,” Ingram said. “And be cautious of having sensitive or confidential conversations within earshot of others at home.”

Fire safety

During the coronavirus crisis, employees may be competing for space and quiet with others in the household. Those setting up their offsite office in a basement or attic should be aware of safety risks, including those related to fire, and take steps to stay safe.

  • Heat-producing equipment, such as computers and space heaters, need air circulation around them. If they are in use, do not place space heaters under desks.
  • Halogen bulbs, such as those in some desk lamps, operate at high temperatures; make sure drapes and other combustible materials aren’t grazing them.
  • Any work area should have a smoke detector installed, with a working battery. A fire extinguisher should be accessible. There should be two means of egress in an emergency. It can’t just be a single set of stairs.
“Also, invest in a good surge protector,” Bolton said, “and be sure there are no outstanding recalls on the model you have.”

Ergonomics

For workers new to working from home, it’s easy to overlook and underestimate the impact of ergonomics on productivity. “While working from a sofa may sound great, the reality is that back and neck pain as well as carpal tunnel problems often start with seating that is too soft or isn’t the right type or height relative to a computer,” Bolton said. “Employees should choose a desk and chair that allow adjustability.” A few tips:

  • Hands and forearms must be in line for the wrist to be neutral at a computer. Wrist rests can be a cost-effective investment to help achieve neutrality.
  • Knees should be slightly lower than hips when seated.
  • The computer monitor should be positioned so the top of the screen or top of the primary information field is approximately at eye level.
Employers should consider providing additional ergonomics tips via email to employees. Zurich has created an online self-assessment tool that can help reduce risk factors associated with computer workstation-related injuries.

Slip, trip and fall risks

With many workers setting up their offsite headquarters in a basement or attic, stairs can raise the risk of slips, trips and falls. It’s tempting to overload yourself with a laptop, coffee cup and files when going up and down stairs to start or end the day. Avoid this temptation and make another trip if necessary. Also:

  • Ensure electrical cords aren’t crossing a pathway or in a tangle underfoot, and replace burned-out light bulbs.
  • Note that all staircases with more than four steps should have a fixed handrail.
  • Anyone working from home should keep the clutter off of stairs and away from their work area.
“There is no need to travel at top speed to catch a phone call, and managers should not suggest that calls be answered within a certain number of rings,” Bolton said. “If you miss a call, call back.”

All of us should do our part to prevent an avoidable accident and a trip to an overburdened doctor or ER. So be mindful of safety and security during an unprecedented surge in telecommuting, while we all wait for work life to regain some semblance of normalcy.

Read our additional coronavirus (COVID-19) resources.