A vast number of companies are now allowing employees to work remotely to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, and practice owners who are searching for additional ways to minimize the risk of exposure in the dental office may consider doing the same.
The hands-on nature of dentistry does not make it feasible for all employees to work remotely, but practice owners can reduce the number of people in the practice by allowing administrative staff to carry out their duties from home.
Practice owners can use the following strategies to set up a remote workforce and ensure employees have the support to remain productive and engaged when they’re away from the office.
While employees are working remotely, it’s important to establish expectations and reinforce the values of the dental office. Practice owners should provide a current job description defining the essential functions of the employees' remote work. As a best practice, employers should document details of the remote work agreement and outline each team member’s availability to ensure they can be reached when needed. Employers should also provide clarity on priorities, milestones and performance goals to promote productivity.
Now that practice owners no longer have constant visual supervision over remote employees, setting clear expectations can help build trust. If team members are communicating clearly, following practice policies and meeting deadlines, employers may have more confidence that the employee is being productive and doing their job effectively.
Before allowing employees to work from home, employers should ensure that team members are equipped with the proper tools. Common equipment that is needed to establish a productive remote work environment includes:
Employers should work with employees to determine which platforms work best and provide reasonable accommodations to employees who may not have access to necessary tools.
Helping employees prepare to work from home also means ensuring they are properly trained to handle protected health information. Employers should have a clear set of guidelines to protect the privacy of patients such as keeping logs of remote access activity and prohibiting employees from allowing friends or family to use devices that contain PHI.
Practice owners can refer to the HIPAA security guidance for tips on how safely access, store and transmit PHI remotely.
To assist with tracking the employee’s progress and work load, employers can establish a work schedule with employees along with the tasks they are expected to complete within a given time.
Practice owners should make it clear that nonexempt employees are to take rest and meal breaks in accordance with practice policy and are not permitted to work outside of their normal working hours unless they have received prior approval. That clear policy will help employees maintain a healthy work-life balance and protects employers from wage and hour liability.
The Department of Labor on Aug. 24 issued guidance on tracking the work hours of nonexempt telecommuters, stating that employers must provide a reporting procedure for unscheduled time. Employees must be compensated for all reported work hours, even those not requested by the employer.
In its guidance, DOL states that if an employee fails to report unscheduled hours worked through the employer's reporting procedure, "the employer is not required to undergo impractical efforts to investigate further to uncover unreported hours of work and provide compensation for those hours."
Open communication between employers and remote workers plays a crucial role in ensuring employees are aware of deadlines, available resources, work-related challenges and policy changes. Employers can promote effective communication by asking employees to provide their preferred method of contact and determining which communication tools best fit the team’s culture.
Open communication also enables employees to express any concerns and negative emotions they may have about their new work arrangement and provides employers with the opportunity to mitigate those concerns and maintain a healthy team dynamic.
The new reality of working from home and not having the opportunity to interact with colleagues or patients in the dental office can make remote staff feel isolated. To help with the adjustment, practice owners can find innovative ways to create connections and maintain a sense of normality, such as setting aside time to share positive feedback or having a virtual coffee break.
Overall, establishing a successful remote workforce begins with an employer’s willingness to be flexible and make adjustments as needed. Practice owners can find additional practice management resources in CDA’s Back to Practice center that can help with developing and maintaining a healthy and safe work environment.