Managing Telecommuting Policy
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Many things have changed since telecommuting started gaining in popularity a decade ago. It may be time to re-evaluate how your employees work remotely.

Telecommuting increased dramatically from 2005 to 2011 as harried employees sought work-life balance and cost-conscious employers enjoyed the benefit of reduced business expenses for each telecommuter. It’s not surprising that most first-generation policies focused on the benefits to both parties, but now that employers are experienced and wiser, it’s time to take a second look at those early telecommuting policies.

“Initially, we didn’t understand the risks associated with a remote workforce,” says Kelly T. Kindig, an associate in the Labor, Employment and Immigration Group at the Philadelphia office of Ballard Spahr. “But now that these risks have come to light, employers need to revisit and revise their telecommuting policies.”

Consider these five areas for your next-generation telecommuting policy:

Work schedules and compensation policies

Thanks to smart phones, tablets and laptops, employees can work 24/7. But it’s easy to violate wage-hour laws when employees work round the clock unless employers create a specific schedule, track workers’ time and ensure compliance with overtime and on-call regulations. The U.S. Department of Labor recently released new guidelines regarding pay for stand-by time so be forewarned, because you may need to compensate hourly workers who troubleshoot problems or respond to calls when they’re away from the office.

Data security and privacy

What happens if your employee loses his or her laptop? Could a thief access your customer database and credit card info? Is your home-based employee using an unsecured wireless network to process invoices or access the company’s bank accounts? Employers should specify the technical and security requirements for digital and paper files that are in the care, custody or control of telecommuters and reserve the right to inspect remote workplaces. Outline what costs the company will cover or consider providing a list of vendors so you can dictate the quality of home networking connections and equipment. Or, consider issuing company-owned equipment so your IT department can monitor data security, passwords and restrict access to certain websites.

HR and communication policies

A relaxed work environment can foster unprofessional behavior and casual interactions that lead to harassment claims or complaints from co-workers and customers.

“It doesn’t occur to employers that in-office policies should apply to telecommuters, but companies are liable for the actions of their employees no matter where they’re located,” says Kindig.

Employers must provide reasonable accommodations to disabled home workers and managers must be consistent and non-discriminatory when assigning telecommuting privileges, says Kindig. Put telecommuters through the same training as in-house workers and be sure to incorporate the company’s HR and communication policies into their policies.

Health and safety

It’s easy to reduce workplace accidents and workers’ compensation claims when employees use ergonomic office equipment and furniture and participate in formal safety programs and on-site wellness fairs. Telecommuters may suffer from carpal tunnel or other injuries if they’re working on a couch or coffee table; plus, they’re more likely to have an accident if they run out to purchase office supplies or coffee several times a day.

Kindig says to include safety rules and guidelines geared toward the needs of home-office dwellers in your revised policy, offer them specialized training programs and office equipment and most importantly, make sure your company is properly insured.

Collaborative input

Solicit input from IT, HR, health and safety, risk management, accounting, legal as well as key line managers to make sure you consider a wide range of risks, performance standards and technical requirements for telecommuters. Track incidents and questions as they arise and revisit your telecommuting policy each quarter.

“Companies need to have an ongoing conversation so they consider both the risks and rewards of telecommuting,” said Kindig.

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