Co-working and open workspaces are a growing trend, especially in the tech and start-up worlds. However, businesses using these arrangements may not be prepared to deal with serious employment law risks that could arise in these unique working environments.

Sexual harassment – Open workspaces may be more casual than traditional spaces. The employers may encourage “play” at work to diffuse stress, with pinball, ping pong, foosball or other games scattered through the space. This can create an environment where managers and employees become overly familiar, and it may not always be welcomed by the employee. Combined with close quarters and long hours, this situation is a breeding ground for inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment claims. Targets of sexual harassment may also have no place to escape from the harasser’s attention. This can create more distress for victims than traditional workspaces where there is at least occasional distance between the harasser and the target. Even if the victim complains, an open workspace could make it difficult for an employer to separate the two employees or take adequate action to address the complainer’s concerns. Employers should be careful to impress upon employees and managers that they should remain professional, even when having fun and blowing off steam. This could be difficult to accomplish if the environment encourages a very casual culture.

Another area of concern in co-working spaces that include multiple businesses is an employer’s need to protect its employees from harassment by the others in the space who are not part of the employer’s business.

Disability discrimination – If an employee has little or no privacy, discussions about his or her disability and need for accommodation may become public very quickly. Accommodations and related discussions may be resented by co-workers, who then bully, harass and discriminate against a disabled worker. Again, there may be no place for this employee to feel safe at work, which can increase their distress.

Overtime laws – Casual workspaces may not have sufficient structure or procedures for proper time-keeping for hourly workers. There may also be a tendency for employers to misclassify employees as “independent contractors” rather than employees who are paid overtime. Regardless of how casual and fun a workplace may be, it doesn’t excuse employers from paying overtime and full wages for all hours worked.

Conclusion – Not all co-working and open office spaces are bad and not all employers who use them are breaking the law. They can be innovative environments that encourage creativity and collaboration among different emerging businesses. However, they do have unique risks compared to traditional workspaces and before placing employees in them, the employer should have a compliance plan and clear policies that outline expectations.

If you have questions about any of these issues, contact the Buchanan Law Firm for help. 505-900-3559