What to Consider When Updating a Company Handbook During COVID-19

By September 15, 2020

By Michael Landen, Labor and Employment Partner

Following six months of shutdowns and immense changes, businesses and employees are either heading back to the workplace or looking to resume some form of operations. However, one thing is for sure: it will not be business-as-usual. With nearly every sector of the economy looking to bring back employees and resume operations, businesses, regardless of the size or nature of work, should consider re-evaluating employee guidelines and implement handbooks that reflect the new reality that COVID-19 has thrust upon the world.

With the pandemic completely transforming the way many businesses operate, the impacts of the health crisis are only just beginning to become clear. Many companies will likely shift to a work-from-home environment while others look at flex office schedules. Some businesses face a higher risk of COVID-19 exposure than others, and some employees will encounter work obstacles while taking on the role of a surrogate educator or caretaker. The landscape and scenarios that employers and employees are now faced with are unprecedented and will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.

Employers should re-examine their policies and procedures in light of the changes necessitated by this pandemic and the changing work landscape and look to implement fresh guidelines because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Companies that are quicker to adopt new protocols and update handbooks could mitigate potential liability and employment disputes in the future. Some of these policies are discussed below.

Company Culture and Values

The employee handbook is a guide to communicate a company’s commitment to the well-being of its teams and the expectations of the employer. If an employer has implemented new COVID-19-related processes or requirements, the information should be clearly stated in the handbook and openly communicated with employees to reassure the staff and set expectations.  Likewise, changes to work schedules and platforms are best reflected in an updated handbook or policy manual.

Conduct and Behavior

With work environments shifting, handbooks should articulate expectations for dress code (including the requirement to wear a face covering) and other policies for in-person work environments, as well as at-home dress code requirements for meetings, etc. For employees who are unable to work remotely or in the event in-person interaction is essential, handbooks should outline if employees will be required to wear masks in common areas, at personal workspaces, or when interacting with coworkers and customers.

Attendance and Leave Policies

With some businesses offering permanent work-from-home options, the updated handbook should address remote work guidelines such as best practices for telecommunications, documentation requirements, and remote meeting guidance. Additionally, employers should review policies for working parents who will also be managing childcare and homeschooling while working remotely. Vacation, sick leave, and family and medical leave need to reflect the new requirements outlined under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

Workplace Safety and Capacity

Employers should consider new guidelines for workplace safety and if capacity restrictions could create limitations that could potentially impact workplace safety and productivity. Many businesses have already implemented strategies for increased sanitation, including cleaning common areas and frequently touched surfaces more frequently. When updating an employee handbook or other policies, an employer should clearly outline protocols for keeping a clean and safe workplace and set expectations for the employees as well.

Confidential and Sensitive Information

With more businesses adopting Cloud-platforms or working remotely, companies should address what security controls and data protection practices need to be implemented. Prior to COVID-19, many businesses already had robust security measures in place; however, businesses are now faced with new types of data breaches and privacy challenges. With personnel managing and accessing intellectual property, confidential and personal information from a remote-work-environment, clear protocols and security controls should be reviewed. Employers’ handbooks should outline plans for updating passwords and maintaining up-to-date security, enabling router encryptions, sourcing trusted networks, and more.

With every industry comes different challenges as businesses look to move forward under the challenges stemming from COVID-19. The issues discussed above are just a few areas to be considered when updating a company’s handbook and policies. For more assistance or information on how to reopen your business or to make sure your policies align with the legal requirements, please contact Kluger Kaplan.