Remote Working Challenges for Industry Associations: An Analysis of a Landmark Decision

Remote Working Challenges for Industry Associations: An Analysis of a Landmark Decision

For leaders and executives within industry associations and not-for-profit organisations, the shift to remote working arrangements has presented both opportunities and challenges. Ensuring a seamless transition without compromising on the essential functions of the organisation is crucial. The recent case of Suzie Cheikho v Insurance Australia Group Services Limited [2023] presented at the Fair Work Commission provides invaluable insights into navigating this complex terrain.

Case Overview

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working became the norm for many organisations. While this setup offers employees greater flexibility, it often results in reduced employer supervision over staff activities.

In this pivotal case, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled in favour of an employer, asserting that the dismissal of an employee for underperformance during remote work was justified.

Case Details

Ms Cheikho joined Insurance Australia Group Services Limited (IAG) in 2005 and from 2017 served as Consultant, Outbound Comms Disclosure. Her role involved tasks like revising policy documents and ensuring adherence to work-from-home policies.

In response to the pandemic, IAG adopted a remote work policy. By late 2022, they encouraged a return to office work. However, Ms Cheikho remained working remotely. Her performance subsequently came under scrutiny, leading to a written warning in November 2022 and a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) by December.

A condition of the PIP, given her work-from-home status, was the monitoring of her online activities. A review for the period between 1 October to 16 December 2022 found various performance discrepancies, including inconsistent work hours and minimal computer activity.

Following an IAG investigation, Ms Cheikho was issued a 'show cause' letter. In her response, she pointed to medical evidence suggesting her health conditions affected her work capacity. Yet, her employment was terminated in February 2023, based on the identified performance issues from the last quarter of 2022.

In March 2023, Ms Cheikho appealed to the FWC, alleging unjust dismissal and seeking compensation.

Decision Synopsis

IAG contended that Ms Cheikho's performance fell short of her role's core requirements, with specific reference to her sparse computer activity. They further highlighted the tangible repercussions of her performance lapses.

Ms Cheikho disputed these points, attributing her performance issues to health challenges and suggesting a possible bias against her from IAG.

While the FWC acknowledged Ms Cheikho's health and employment challenges, they sided with IAG. They deemed the termination process fair, with Ms Cheikho being properly informed and given opportunities to rectify the concerns.

Ultimately, the FWC found Ms Cheikho's dismissal, given her performance deficits during remote work, to be neither harsh nor unreasonable.

Takeaways for Industry Associations and Not-for-Profit Leaders

This case underscores the nuanced challenges that industry associations and not-for-profit organisations may face when transitioning to, or maintaining, remote working arrangements. 

It's essential to strike a balance between providing flexibility and ensuring organisational mandates are met. If remote work is part of your organisational strategy, having a robust policy framework is paramount.

Leaders must set clear expectations for employees, ensuring alignment with the organisation's goals, and guaranteeing that there's a clear mechanism for monitoring, feedback, and disciplinary actions if necessary.

As the landscape of work continues to evolve, staying abreast of such landmark decisions can guide and inform best practices, ensuring the continued success and resilience of industry associations and not-for-profit organisations.