With the advent of internet technology came the feasibility of working away from a central office, commonly referred to as telecommuting. The changing nature of work toward more computer-based duties has also played a role in allowing more and more workers to telecommute. However, it's important to keep in mind that working remotely doesn't make sense for all occupations; physicians and store clerks are two obvious examples.
Enacting a half-baked work-from-home strategy, failing to properly manage telecommuters, or offering the option to ill-suited employees can backfire. See below to learn more about how to best construct your company's telecommuting policy.
Benefits of Telecommuting
The main employee advantage of telecommuting is the time and money savings from not physically commuting to work each day. Research shows that employees who telecommute benefit from less stress and enjoy general improvements in health, according to the American Telecommuting Association (ATA). And then there are the intangibles such as the ability to have lunch with a friend, run a quick errand or spend more time preparing a family meal.
Employers also reap substantial rewards from properly implemented telecommuting policies. Several studies of telecommuting over the past two decades have consistently shown that such policies increase productivity by 10 to 15 percent, while cutting down on office expenses and employee absenteeism. Meanwhile, telecommuting is a virtually free benefit to employees that can help with retention while reducing burnout.
Telecommuting as a Reasonable Accommodation
Telecommuting also can be provided as a "reasonable accommodation" for disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to 1999 enforcement guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Under the ADA, which covers businesses with 15 or more employees, employers need not have a companywide telecommuting policy in order to offer it as an ADA-related accommodation.
As with any decision pertaining to the accommodation of an employee's disability, the decision to offer a telecommuting option should be made through an "interactive process" between employer and employee.
Implementing Telecommuting Policies & Managing Telecommuters
Telecommuting policies succeed or fail largely on the merits of how their participating employees are managed. But carefully approaching such a change in policy instead of blindly jumping in is the key to success. Some states have labor laws governing how telecommuting and other flexible work arrangements are offered, often to prevent favoritism in the workplace.
The federal government identifies the following seven steps for implementing a successful telecommuting policy:
- Identify Jobs Best Suited to Telecommuting - Determine which positions are most compatible with a remote working arrangement, keeping in mind that telecommuters typically work in the office one or more days per week.
- Choose the Best Candidates for Telecommuting - Not all employees are well-suited to working from home, while others prefer the camaraderie of working in an office. Ask an attorney whether state laws require a more equitable approach.
- Check State & Federal Incentives - The cost of establishing a home office sometimes can be offset by incentive programs at both the state and federal level (often through the state's environmental protection agency).
- Set Up a Trial Period - Start a six-month or one-year pilot program with a small group of employees, keeping track of successes and failures.
- Adjust Management Techniques Accordingly - Use the trial period as an opportunity to both acclimate supervisors and test new management techniques with respect to telecommuters.
- Track Results - At the end of the pilot program, review the results; interview employees who participated in the program and determine how it worked or didn't work, thinking of ways to improve the program.
- Set Goals for Expansion - Plan for a companywide implementation of the telecommuting program.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies seven additional key considerations for establishing a telecommuting policy:
- Telecommuting should be voluntary, since not all employees are interested in such an arrangement. Both the employee and employer should have the option of terminating the arrangement at any time.
- Job performance must be closely monitored and tasks clearly defined.
- Proprietary information must be secured at the employee's home or other remote work location.
- Equipment (usually a computer) must be made available to the employee, which may include the employee's own equipment.
- Utility and phone charges associated with telecommuting should be shared with the employer, when applicable.
- Employees should carefully examine the tax implications of telecommuting; use of one's home for work often for certain deductions.
- Clearly enunciate your remote working policy in a written Telecommuting Agreement, including consequences for violating the terms of the agreement.
Seeking Advice of an Employment Law Attorney
If your company is considering implementing a telecommute policy or simply wants to update their current arrangement, consider seeking the advice of an experienced employment law attorney. A knowledgeable attorney can guide you in the right direction and help you avoid certain pitfalls.
See FindLaw's Hiring Process section to learn more.