Question:

With gas prices so high these days, I have received several requests from employees to work at home for at least part of the week. Our company doesn’t have a policy addressing telecommuting. While I am not particularly adverse to the idea in most cases, I’m wondering if there is anything we should know about telecommuting before we give our employees the green light?

Answer:

As you are no doubt aware, telecommuting is very common in today’s work culture, and has continued to increase in popularity. However, while telecommuting can have many advantages for both employers and employees, it also carries with it some disadvantages that you should consider before adopting a telecommuting policy.

The first thing to consider is whether the nature of your business will allow for successful telecommuting. In some industries, where face-to-face interaction with clients and/or coworkers is essential, telecommuting is probably not feasible. However, assuming that the nature of your business is such that telecommuting would work from a logistical standpoint, you will want to consider the potential management challenges that can be presented by having employees work off-site. These challenges can include:

  • How will you ensure effective supervision and oversight of employees?
  • How will you facilitate sufficient communications with employees who are working from home?
  • How will you obtain enough information to assess employee performance?

You will also want to consider whether your employees are independent enough to telecommute, or whether direct supervision is necessary in order to ensure that their work is being done timely and properly. Also consider the potentially isolating effects of working from home, as well as the overall impact on your workplace environment. Some employers find that having their employees scattered amongst a variety of locations tends to make the workplace feel less cohesive, while having everyone in one location helps to support more of a “team” atmosphere.

On the plus side, statistics show that telecommuting results in increased production, more flexibility in the workplace, decreased sick leave, decreased turnover, reduced office space needs, increased organizational skills, and less pollution and traffic congestion from people driving to work. In fact, by allowing employees to work at home rather than commuting daily to work, telecommuting programs can result in significant reductions in rush-hour traffic congestion, vehicle emissions and fuel consumption. One study estimated that $23 billion could be saved in transportation, environmental, and energy costs if there were a 10 to 20 percent increase in telecommuting.

If you decide to adopt a telecommuting program for your business, here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Restrict telecommuting opportunities to those employees whose job duties are appropriate for this type of arrangement, and who already have a history of satisfactory job performance.
  • Keep in touch with your telecommuters—you may want to schedule weekly or bi-weekly meetings where everyone is required to meet in person to discuss projects, issues that have come up, and any other aspects of your business.
  • Make sure your employees know that telecommuting is a privilege and not a right, and that you as the employer have the discretion to revoke that privilege at any time.
  • Consider limiting telecommuting to 2-3 days a week, so that all of your employees will be physically present in the workplace at some point during the week. In conjunction with this, you might designate a certain day of the week as an “in-office” day where everyone is required to be present.
  • Set performance objectives in advance and make sure that your telecommuting employees understand your expectations and their own responsibilities.
  • You may also need to set limits for some employees. Non-exempt employees will have to carefully track their work time, and your policy may require that they get advance approval before working any overtime.

At the outset, you may also want to set some limits regarding the length of time for your telecommuting program, and to let your employees know that you are only trying it out on a temporary basis. This will give you some leeway, should the program not turn out to be successful. You should also be sure to incorporate the foregoing guidelines into a written policy or employee handbook that your employees will be required to review. They should then be asked to sign an acknowledgement stating that they have read and understand your telecommuting policy.
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