By Jane Randel

Working from home (WFH) may be here to stay. Between the hours saved without a commute, the demonstrated ability to be productive virtually, the additional time with family, and the ongoing fear of coronavirus, some employees don’t want to return to the office. Per a recent NY Times article, “Many [people] are happier, more efficient and want to hang onto the benefits when the pandemic ends.”

But what if it’s not safe to work from home?

Since COVID-19 reduced our mobility and took over our lives, two things are true: more people are working from home and more people are reporting domestic violence. In fact, in a study of five large American cities The Economist found that while “most types of crime have indeed fallen in recent weeks, reports of domestic violence have increased.”

It’s not to imply that these two things are related per se, but rather to point out that this presents new challenges for even the most enlightened companies with the best policies to assist employees who experience domestic violence. This is because those policies were created for issues that are more noticeable inside an office or place of business. Things like lost productivity, visible bruising, a deluge of messages or texts, high absenteeism, and a general state of anxiety related to a spouse or partner.

The ways to address these issues are also designed for the workplace: changing a phone extension, escorts to and from transportation hubs, enforcement of orders of protection that include the place of business, and referrals to resources, to name just a few. So WFH creates a real dilemma for companies that believe they have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for employees.

It’s unreasonable to expect an organization to be able to control an off-site setting, especially the home, but they can control how they adapt their policies for this strange new world.

For example, if an employee does not feel safe WFH, perhaps the company can relocate them to an office. Or maybe the referrals to domestic violence resources once provided in the privacy of the office can be shared across the work-specific platforms used every day, like Slack. There are many viable options, that’s not the issue. The issue is getting more businesses to acknowledge how domestic violence is affecting their workforce, put policies in place, and work with experts to train internal teams on the best way to handle cases when they come up.

It goes without saying that during this period of uncertainty, social distancing, and WFH, companies should make a concerted effort to create a work environment where people feel supported and able to come forward to ask for help without fear of being stigmatized, shamed, or worried about retaliation. People who come down with COVID-19 aren’t ashamed to come forward, and the same should be true for those who need help dealing with domestic violence in the WFH era.

It has taken a long time for businesses to realize they need to help employees who are victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and still most do not. In a world in which COVID-19 has forced new, creative ways of working, responding to employees who need their jobs for economic flexibility, escape from danger, and self-esteem among other things, can no longer be avoided.