Will telecommuting benefit your organization? There’s much to consider

CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to require Yahoo employees who work remotely to relocate to company facilities received immediate reactions from social media and diverse news sources.

An internal memo written by Yahoo’s head of human resources provided the following insights into the company’s rationale: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” It further explained: “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

A firestorm of opinions followed the release of this information. Some described the decision as a step backwards, unfriendly, a blow to employee morale and a potential catalyst for an exodus of talent.

Others pointed out that the job of a CEO is to ensure that employees’ job performance meets the company’s expectations, which may include requirements to work onsite.

Yahoo captured headlines, in part, based on the size and prominence of the organization and what appeared to be an unexpected turnaround in philosophy. Best Buy subsequently gained attention by announcing restrictions in its flexible work program. Although some observers project that these high-profile decisions may become trendsetters, it is likely that many employers will continue to make choices based on their specific needs and culture.

Controversies surrounding these recent decisions reinforce the need for employers to acquire necessary information in determining whether telecommuting is a fit for their organizations. A starting point is to consider potential benefits and downsides.

For employers, benefits can include decreases in expenditures for office space and increases in the productivity, morale and retention of those who receive this privilege. For employees, there can be benefits, such as savings in fuel costs, less time spent commuting and a more flexible work environment.

Potential downsides can include feelings of isolation that stem from working at home, a negative impact on the morale of employees who are not eligible for this option, and communication issues for telecommuters, supervisors and co-workers resulting from limited workplace interactions.

The following are considerations to assist employers in making decisions regarding telecommuting:

1. Recognize there is a need for employers to gain an in-depth understanding of telecommuting to determine whether it has merit for their organizations. Studies, articles, sample policies, and other relevant information can be found by researching the topic on the Internet. For example, the Department of Labor recently launched its Workplace Flexibility Toolkit (www.dol.gov/odep/workplaceflexibility) to provide viewers with an additional online resource.

2. Identify jobs that are suitable for working from home. Consider how organizational needs will be met, such as the ability of employees to perform job requirements and deliver an expected standard of customer service.

3. Decide how selections for assignments will be made. Use objective criteria, such as performance evaluations, level of experience and ability to work independently. Also, give consideration to whether employees’ work styles and preferences are conducive to working from a remote location.

4. Examine applicable federal, state and local employment-related laws. For example, overtime and recordkeeping requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act apply to non-exempt employees who telecommute. Other federal laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, also normally apply, regardless of employees’ worksites. In some states, such as Tennessee, workers’ compensation may cover an employee who is injured while working at home, provided the injury arises out of and in the course of employment.

5. Decide whether to include telecommuting in the organization’s contingency plan in preparing for emergencies. Regardless of whether it is adopted on a day-to-day basis, this alternative can provide business continuity in the event of natural disasters, pandemics, or other emergency situations.

6. Institute and communicate policies and guidelines that establish expectations for employees and management prior to implementing a telecommuting program. Draft acknowledgement forms to document receipt of pertinent information.

7. Prepare management and employees for telecommuting assignments. For example, provide information that clarifies the responsibilities of each party. Assist supervisors in understanding how to assess the performance of employees they do not regularly observe.

8. Place a priority on the communication process. Develop plans to ensure that employees receive relevant information, including performance feedback, on an ongoing basis and that they have opportunities to provide input.

9. Take a detailed approach to making plans for implementation by considering questions such as the following: How frequently will employees who telecommute be required to work or meet onsite? Should employees be given discretion to opt out of these arrangements and, if so, what parameters for participation will be established? Will unsatisfactory performance or similar issues trigger termination of participation? Is the organization or the employee responsible for providing and maintaining equipment and other work-related items in the home? Are there confidentiality and security issues associated with organizational data and other information that will need to be taken into account?

10. Monitor the effectiveness of the program on an ongoing basis and make adjustments, as needed. Determine its success in meeting organizational objectives and whether it should be continued in whole or in part.

Published in the Memphis Business Journal on March 29, 2013

BARBARA RICHMAN, SPHR is a senior consultant with HR Mpact, a Memphis human resource consulting firm, www.hr-mpact.com. She can be reached at (901) 685-9084, (901) 496-0462 or barbara@hr-mpact.com.

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BARBARA RICHMAN, SPHR is a senior consultant with HR Mpact, a Memphis human resource consulting firm. She can be reached at (901) 685-9084, (901) 496-0462 or barbara@hr-mpact.com.

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