Telework Programs Take Planning to Succeed

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

High-profile pullbacks from telework by employers like IBM and Yahoo probably indicate their programs were poorly designed, not that the whole idea is bad, consultants say.

“From all the data we’ve seen, participation in telework and remote work continues to increase across the world, especially when looking at long-term trends,” Brie Weiler Reynolds, senior career specialist at job search website FlexJobs, told Bloomberg BNA in a May 3 email.

Telecommuting is likely here to stay, despite some withdrawals, because “it’s a win-win for everybody” when the practice is allowed, Melissa Fleischer, president and founder of the Rye, N.Y.-based HR Learning Center LLC, said.

Matt Thomas, president and CEO of professional employer organization WorkSmart Systems Inc., said the arrangement came in-vogue eight to 10 years ago and there hasn’t been a big falloff since. “There’s no way the telecommuting trend is going away. Younger workers like millennials want it,” he told Bloomberg BNA April 19. Thomas’ group is based in Indianapolis.

According to a recent white paper that Reynolds worked on, 37 percent of all workers in the U.S. work remotely at least occasionally, up from 9 percent in 1995, she said. “And more employers announce their remote work programs every year,” she said. “In Japan in 2016, Toyota announced that it will let one-third of its workforce start working remotely.”

“It’s a natural progression in the way professionals work, rooted in some of the most profound societal shifts of the last two decades,” Reynolds added. “Affordable, powerful mobile technologies, high-speed internet, the adoption of the knowledge economy, and overall globalization have all contributed to the rise in remote work.”

Avoid the Pitfalls

“At some companies it works very well, and others back away from it because it doesn’t work,” Thomas said. Employers that stumble in adopting telework policies tend to have plunged in without putting monitoring systems in place. It’s also best to have a clear purpose for offering a telework option; getting into telework to try to save on the lease of office space or just because “it seems like a cool trend” is asking for trouble, Thomas said.

While it’s true that even in-office employees are monitored more for productivity than for hours spent at the desk, telework can’t be a free-for-all. “If you just put people out there and don’t monitor them the way you do your in-office employees, and expect everyone to be a self-starter,” then you might get in trouble, Thomas said. That’s what reportedly happened at Yahoo, and he said he’s seen it happen on a smaller scale.

“Not everyone has the personality for it,” Thomas said. “Someone may be one type of employee in the office with a good manager, and another type at home where the dog’s barking” and there are numerous other distractions. Moreover, “people tend to miss the social aspect of work” when they work from home.

Reynolds advised companies to create formalized programs and decide what types of remote work will integrate well with their culture and employees. Decide up front which job roles should be eligible for remote work and what the main goals of the program are, she advised, noting that employers need to train managers on essentials like proactive communication, time management and goal setting.

It’s also important to set policies on computer security and monitoring metrics for teleworkers, Thomas said.

Consider Legal Requirements

As to legal pitfalls, it’s important to protect against discrimination claims from employees not allowed to telecommute, Fleischer said.

Make sure to keep documentation and have a formal, written telecommuting policy showing that decisions about who can telecommute aren’t made “haphazardly,” she said. The policy should include which roles are or aren’t eligible, she said.

Employers have to engage in an “interactive process” of talking with an employee with a qualifying disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act who asks to telecommute as a “reasonable accommodation” for that disability, Fleischer said. If the employer rejects the request, it needs to have documented before the question ever came up that it’s because the “essential functions” of the job include being physically present, she said.

The HR department rather than line managers should take the lead on this process, she said. If the employer approves the request, it may have to provide telecommuting equipment to the employee, Fleischer said.

Employers that allow telecommuting also have to be careful not to violate wage and hour laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, Fleischer said. That requires carefully defining working hours and putting in place effective time tracking and documentation systems for telecommuting employees who are “nonexempt” under the FLSA, meaning they’re eligible for overtime, she said. Also, the employer should have telecommuters sign an agreement including, among other things, their commitment not to work overtime without authorization, Fleischer added.

Worker safety requirements continue to apply to telecommuters, Fleischer said. This means the telecommuting agreement needs to include safety standards for the worker’s home office, she said, and the worker’s commitment to report any injuries to the employer.

Fleischer was speaking May 4 in a webinar sponsored by Aurora Training Advantage.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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