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Telecommuting is an option that is becoming increasingly attractive to both employees and employers. In an electronic society it is no longer necessary for employees to be “where the work is.” Today the work can come to them. Whether a company has a formal program or is faced with making a decision about telecommuting based upon an individual employee request, there are certain issues that need to be addressed in developing a telecommuting agreement.
Steve Peltin, a labor and employment attorney with Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, says, “A telecommuting agreement sets out the expectations in writing, signed by the manager and by the employee.” Specific agreements should be developed to address the unique issues of each telecommuting arrangement.
In addition to individual telecommuting agreements, a telecommuting policy can outline the program for employees and clarify issues such as which positions are appropriate for telecommuting and which are not. Anne Lang, head of U.S. human resources for Arthur Andersen was involved in Arthur Andersen’s recent introduction of a national “teleworking” policy and says, “up-front communication in terms of how to make the best of how we work and check-in points are good business and smart on both parts.”
A telecommuting agreement, says Dan Toussant, Director of H.R. for Rea & Associates, an accounting and business consulting firm, “is necessary for each situation.”
“When developing a telecommuting program,” Toussant advises, “it is important to draft the agreement with input from the human resources, legal and risk management departments to anticipate issues of potential liability.”
10 ELEMENTS OF A SOUND TELECOMMUTING POLICY/AGREEMENT
Not all positions in your organization will be appropriate for telecommuting. Individuals with responsibility for direct, on-site customer contact, for example, obviously could not work out of their homes. Computer programmers, however, may be able to operate quite effectively from home.
Just as not all jobs are appropriate for telecommuting, not all employees will be able to adapt to the unique requirements of an off-site work arrangements. What are the personal qualifications of effective telecommuters. According to Toussant, successful teleworkers:
--Are highly productive
--Have a high level of job skills
--Have excellent communication skills
--Have strong problem-solving capabilities
--Are steady under pressure
--Work effectively without supervision
--Keep management informed
--Are able to come into the office for scheduled meetings, and
--Are not concerned about being socially isolated.
“Working from home shouldn’t be a substitute for child care or elder care,” Lang says. “Individuals should still make sure that they have some level of support.”
The home office, Lang says, should be “a place where work can be done as easily as possible and, at the same time, additional out of pocket costs to the organization can be managed.”
With efficiency as a goal, each organization should consider what equipment is necessary for the telecommuter to operate most effectively – and who will provide that equipment.
“There needs to be something in the agreement which defines what the company is providing in terms of equipment,” Toussant says. “This will vary from one situation to another. I would spell out exactly what the work site looks like, where it’s located in the home and what is there in terms of equipment.”
There has been much discussion in recent months about employers’ responsibility for ensuring employee safety in the home. This remains a confusing area, but one issue is clear – employers do have a level of responsibility for the safety of their employees even when those employees are working from home.
Because of this, the telecommuting agreement, Peltin says, should include “clarification about who is responsible for ensuring that the home workplace is free of hazards that might cause injury.”
“The employer should retain the right to inspect the home workplace and spell that out in the agreement,” Toussant recommends. “This is important from a workers compensation liability standpoint.”
Security of company information and documents is an issue whether an employee works at home or at the office. When the employee has this information, off site, however, there is an even higher level of risk that the information could be misused – or fall into the wrong hands.
This is a particularly sensitive issue, Peltin says, for high tech companies. The agreement, he says, should address not just the employee who “may have malice in his heart,” but should also consider other people who may be coming into the home to ensure that sensitive information isn’t disclosed to outsiders in some inadvertent way.
Another security issue to consider is how you will obtain proprietary information and documents after the relationship has ended. Again, this should be clearly spelled out in the policy so there are no disagreements or misunderstanding if and when the relationship is terminated.
Since technology powers the telecommuting arrangement, it’s important that attention be paid to this very important area.
Jennifer Johnson is founder of Johnson & Company, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm specializing in growing high-technology companies. Johnson & Company is a “virtual” agency, with no headquarters but a dispersed group of employees who work from their homes.
Johnson says, “I think it’s really important to determine the minimum technical standard that a company wants folks to work with. At our company we have a technical set-up that’s required. Some of the technical requirements included in the “Johnson & Company Independent Contractor Office Requirement Checklist” include:
--Dedicated job & company phone line
--Professional voice mail system that ensures no busy signal or waiting and identifies job & company
--Unique fax number for ability to receive fax at any time
--Ability to send faxes from home office
--Dedicated data line (can be analog; high speed such as cable or DSL recommended) separate from business line to allow simultaneous phone and Internet use
--Professional, dependable Internet service
8) Work Hours
While telecommuting suggests freedom from restricted work hours, most jobs will require some level of accountability during certain times of the day, or days of the week.
“Our policy for our normal telework arrangements is we want people to come into the office one to two days a week to gain additional visibility to the people that they work with,” Lang says. Of course, she says, if the employee is a distant teleworker, coming in this often would not be feasible.
What do you expect from your telecommuting employees? How will you determine if they are performing up to expectations? At what point will you be able to terminate the relationship if productivity or quality of output becomes an issue? These are all points that should be considered and addressed in the telecommuting agreement.
The key to a successful telecommuting arrangement is communication. “Out of sight” should not mean “out of mind.” To avoid problems, it’s important that communication issues be addressed specifically as part of the telecommuting agreement.
“I would recommend devising processes for organizing your communication,” Johnson recommends. Some examples from her experience include how often you expect employees to check their e-mail and voicemail – even how to use the subject line in an email, or which time zone your organization will use as a “standard.”
“Working virtually just means incorporating all of the good, common sense business practices that every company should do, but often don’t,” Johnson stresses.” And, of course, making sure that those good practices are clearly outlined in a telecommuting agreement!
Lin Grensing-Pophal is the author of Telecommuting: Managing Off-Site Staff for Small Business, which will released by Self-Counsel Press in November.