In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are implementing flexible work arrangements (FWA) for their employees in an effort to continue business operations and maintain the safety and wellbeing of their workforce. Telecommuting is a popular FWA, because it is relatively easy to implement, provides employees their desired flexibility and saves employers money on in-house facilities and reduced turnover costs due to a more satisfied workforce. Considered a benefit and/or luxury by most, telecommuting has become a necessity until COVID-19’s threat has passed. Whether implementing a temporary or permanent telecommuting arrangement, careful thought should first be put into plan design and policy development.
Will Telecommuting Work for Your Company?
Generally, telecommuting works best for jobs that require independent work, minimal face-to-face interaction and have a measurable work product. Each position’s job duties must be evaluated to determine telecommuting suitability. In some cases, it might be easier to first determine which jobs cannot be done remotely. In its Telework Guide, The Office of Personnel Management lists the following job activities as among those not suited for telecommuting work for federal workers:
- Face-to-face personal contact (e.g., most counseling, medical assessment, some sales)
- Hands-on operation of equipment, vehicles, or other onsite assets
- Direct physical handling of secure materials
- Activities dependent on a physical presence (e.g., security guard, forest ranger)
Identify Challenges and Potential Roadblocks
Interestingly enough, employees are often a main source of pushback when it comes to telecommuting. Take for example an employee in a position not conducive to telecommuting. How will you handle any simmering resentment that employee may display towards employees allowed to telecommute? Some other potential challenges to address before rolling out telecommuting plans are:
- Telecommuting employees feeling disconnected.
- Telecommuting employees experiencing distractions from pressures at home (e.g., children, pets, spouses).
- The perception among non-telecommuting employees that telecommuting employees are “unavailable’ or not actually working.
- Ensuring proper communication channels with telecommuting employees.
- The expectation that telecommuting employees be available outside of normal business hours.
- Issues with software compatibility, viruses, firewalls, etc.
- Determining performance metrics for telecommuting employees.
- Providing opportunities for some face-to-face interactions and meetings.
- Professional use of personal equipment.
Once you have addressed potential challenges with a telecommuting arrangement, it is time to develop your actual policy. Typically, a telecommuting policy should address the following:
- Eligibility. How long must an employee work for your company before he/she is eligible to telecommute? Which positions are considered
telecommuting positions and which are not? What performance and conduct standards must be met?
- Process. How does an employee request a telecommuting arrangement? Is there an agreement that must be signed? Is HR involved?
- Workspace. What equipment does the employee need to telecommute and who will pay for the equipment, upkeep and repairs?
- Security. How will the company and employees ensure confidentiality of proprietary company information? Do file cabinets need to be locked? What password maintenance will be required? What tech support is available to employees?
- Communication. What regular communication channels will be used?
- Safety. What safety precautions should be taken? To whom should safety concerns and issues be reported? Does the company need to inspect the home workspace to ensure safety standards are met? Will management be allowed access to the telecommuter’s home for investigative purposes in the event of an accident/injury?
- Reporting time worked. What timekeeping mechanism will be used? What is the procedure for reporting time and obtaining any necessary timesheet approvals?
- Termination clause. Include a statement that the telecommuting arrangement may be terminated at any time and for any reason by the company.
As with all corporate policies, legal compliance with federal, state and local laws is essential. Some areas that warrant special consideration in the context of telecommuting are:
Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
The FLSA regulates pay practices and affords workers protections through standards for minimum wage, overtime pay, record keeping and youth labor. The same FLSA requirements for employees at a traditional worksite apply to workers who telecommute. All time worked by non-exempt employees must be recorded and overtime must be paid for any hours over 40 worked in a workweek. The challenge lies in the difficulty of tracking actual hours worked when employees work from home or are otherwise not in the office. Overtime can quickly turn into a huge unexpected expense for employers who don’t monitor the hours worked by telecommuters. It is considered a best practice to have a policy requiring prior supervisory approval for all overtime for both telecommuters and non-telecommuters. Management should strictly adhere to this policy to ensure overtime is properly managed.
Travel time to and from a place of work is generally not compensable under the FLSA. However, if an employee has already started her principal work activity, then any travel time to and from another location where work is performed may be compensable. This could apply to a telecommuting employee who begins her day by responding to emails and then travels to a worksite for a scheduled meeting. The time spent traveling to the worksite may be compensable.
Most state workers’ compensation laws make no differentiation between employees who work onsite and those who telecommute. Injuries sustained while performing work, on and off-site, are typically covered by workers’ compensation. To that end, employers should take reasonable steps to ensure a safe working environment for telecommuters and enforce good risk management practices. It may be helpful to provide employees a workplace safety checklist and follow up regularly to ensure safety procedures are being followed.
Equal Employment Opportunity
As with all policies and procedures, you should take steps to ensure all telecommuting arrangements are offered and implemented without discrimination on any prohibited basis. Clear policies, consistent practices and documentation are necessary to present a solid defense in a discrimination charge. It is recommended you keep a telecommuting employee’s wages, insurance and other fringe benefits the same as if the employee were not telecommuting.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration addressed home offices in 2000 and indicated the agency “will not conduct inspections of the employee’s home offices,” “will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices” and “does not expect employers to inspect home offices of the employees.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing an employee to work at home may be a reasonable accommodation where the person’s disability prevents successfully performing the job on-site and the job, or parts of the job, can be performed at home without causing significant difficulty or expense. Once an employee has disclosed a disability and requests an accommodation, you are required to engage in a dialogue about possible accommodations and working from home may be a solution.
Contact Smart HR
Telecommuting has long been a flexible work arrangement that benefits both employees and employers when carefully planned and implemented. In today’s environment with the COVID-19 pandemic, telecommuting is quickly becoming a necessary work arrangement. A Smart HR consultant can ensure your existing telecommuting plan is executed properly, meeting your objectives and is legally compliant. If you do not currently offer telecommuting or any other flexible work arrangement, it would be prudent to speak with a Smart HR consultant about ways to quickly implement a plan in the wake of the current global health crisis. As always, Smart HR is here to help you navigate through this difficult situation in a responsible and thoughtful manner. Call today.