CHAUDHRI: Employers boost remote productivity but warn working from home won’t last forever

Sunira Chaudhri is an employment and labour lawyer and partner at Levitt LLP. She sheds light on some questions for employees during COVID-19.

Supplied photo / Levitt LLP

Tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon were early leaders on facilitating remote work for their employees en masse in the first days of the pandemic.

In fact, Google claims to have led the charge by sending Asian employees home to work virtually in February of this year followed by European and American employees in March.

Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat confirmed in an interview this week that Google saw a drop in employee productivity in the early days of COVID. But through the use of coaching and surveys, Porat says Google is seeing pre-COVID employee productivity even though employees are working remotely.

Employee productivity was especially important for the company now that some Google platforms have seen upwards of 30 times the norm and are fully supported by a remote workforce.

A key to Google’s response to COVID was a strong governance structure and focusing on making the “least worse choice” for its workforce. Despite promising vaccine news, Google made the notable decision to extend its voluntary work-from-home regime until June 2021. Porat says employees cannot get cadence with an incremental approach. A longer program gives employees structure to find rhythm in their work.

To support employees, Google made the decision to “overcommunicate” and updated its FAQs section round the clock. Porat said employees felt the company was there and cared with the frequent updates.

While Google seems to have embraced the work-from-home culture, it was not shy about tracking employee productivity and hacking dropping employee performance quickly. In her interview, Porat was quite firm that Google thrives on innovation, and that innovation comes from employee collaboration across teams. This requires employees returning to the workplace. She also expects many employees to be back at work well before the voluntary work-from-home program ends next year. Google is preparing a “hybrid” workplace after receiving survey feedback from employees that many want to return to work but perhaps not daily.

The fact is, the longer employees are entitled to work from home, the greater the likelihood that the foundation of their employment agreements will fundamentally change. No longer will employers reasonably be able to demand a complete return to work with no “hybrid” flexibility. This is the case whether COVID continues to be a limiting factor or not. Hybrid workplaces are the future, including flexible work arrangements, virtual check-ins and productivity tracking, office hoteling systems and more. If you haven’t already, plan for your future workplace now.

On to your questions from this week:

Q. (Regarding your article last week on the MP hiring her sister) I can agree, but since nepotism is rampant in the real world, is her hiring her sister a real sin? … she broke the rules, she should pay, but the crime is not even close to the crimes being committed daily …

A. Nepotism may be the norm in some companies; of course, some organizations pride themselves on being family-run and family-owned. MP Ratansi, however, ignored a clear an unequivocal rule that governs her appointment. Allegedly she deliberately concealed her conduct, which suggests, at least to some, she knew she was breaking the rules and did it anyway. She is a leader, not a rank-and-file employee and must walk the walk. So far, no discipline has been imposed, she has not yet “paid” for her misconduct as you suggest and that is the most unfortunate part of this story.

Q. Thanks for reading my question. My workplace is very lax about who is allowed in and out of the working area. Customers come in and even some employee family members come to visit without a heads up to the rest of us. I believe none of them are screened with respect to whether or not they have any COVID symptoms. I know a co-worker made a complaint to the Ministry of Labour about the safety of this place. Do I have to go to work while we await the investigation? It is not fair that I need to put myself at risk with elderly family at home.

A. There is no current mandate to allow employees to stay at home pending a Ministry of Labour investigation. In fact, the vast majority of labour investigations in this province since COVID began have resulted in no sanctions to employers and workplaces were deemed safe; so don’t hold your breath. That said, your concerns are legitimate and should be raised, in writing to your employer. This gives your employer the opportunity to investigate internally and right the ship.

Email me your COVID-19 workplace questions at and your question may be featured in a future column.

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