Telecommuting is a workplace option that permits employees to work at an alternative worksite, such as the home, for one or more days per week. Modern technology, whether it involves using tablets, smartphones or remotely logging in to the company’s computer system via a virtual private network (VPN), has made some employees’ daily commutes to work virtually unnecessary. Although the term was coined in 1973 and initially faced slow acceptance, the concept is, in today’s world, being adopted by a majority of large and small companies alike, to great advantage to both employer and employee.
The telecommuting “virtual office” might consist of a smartphone or PDA, tablet computer, notebook computer, facsimile and voicemail capabilities. Since all of these items are now available in portable sizes, employees can work virtually anywhere.
Employers that offer telecommuting as an option for employees generally report the following benefits:
Telecommuting is also a method of providing accommodation to individuals with disabilities, although it will not necessarily replace the need for physical workplace modifications. An otherwise qualified disabled individual may be entitled to telecommute if telecommuting is an option for other employees, and it is possible for the individual to perform the essential functions of his or her job by doing so.
Employers should first identify the job categories for which telecommuting would be appropriate, rather than immediately selecting the individuals.
Certain types of jobs are more easily adapted to telecommuting, such as:
Certainly, many other jobs are adaptable to telecommuting. Employers should review the job functions in the business and consider whether particular administrative and support positions can be accomplished away from the office. As a general rule of thumb, if an employee can close his or her office door for up to eight hours and effectively accomplish his or her job without the need for face-to-face contact with other employees, that job is adaptable for telecommuting.
Management employees may also be successful telecommuters, and telecommuting will not cause them to lose their exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), provided they can still perform the necessary managerial functions required under the FLSA and the Massachusetts Wage Act. Similarly, it is important for employers to ensure that telecommuting nonexempt employees do not exceed their 40-hour workweeks without authorization, because they will be entitled to overtime pay regardless of whether they work their overtime hours at work or remotely. See Wages and hours for the specific guidelines for overtime and minimum wage exemptions.
After identifying the job positions eligible for telecommuting, an employer should consider and select individuals who will be able to work by telecommunication. Employees who generally make good telecommuters are those who:
When potential employees who live and work in states where the company has not previously had operations, there are many issues that will need to be considered in advance of making any such hiring decisions.
Many states have their own wage and hour laws that differ from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Before making a job offer to a potential remote worker from another state, it is important to review the following requirements for the state he or she resides in regarding:
Not only do many states have different leave entitlements laws but this is also an area where cities and counties have also gotten involved. Such entitlements may include:
Employers should consult the laws in this area in any state where a potential remote employee resides to ensure it is prepared to provide all of the leaves necessary if the individual is eventually hired.
Generally, an employee’s performance of job duties will constitute business operations by the employer even if confined to the employee’s home. Other areas where due diligence would be required before making an employment offer are:
Employers need to be aware of these issues and others that may arise by employing workers that live and work outside of the company’s existing workplace(s) before making an offer of employment to individuals outside of normal jurisdictions.
It would also behoove employers to be diligent in obtaining signatures from remote workers on all acknowledgements and releases of policies and procedures that are required of onsite workers.
For a telecommuting program to succeed, management support is essential. Some managers may be reluctant to allow telecommuting because it is a change in the way that they have supervised employees in the past. However, with proper training, these same managers can learn to provide the necessary supervision within the telecommuting context.
Generally, moreover, an employer should require new employees to work for some period of time in the physical work environment before the employer implements a telecommuting program for that employee. This training period allows the employer to assess the employee to make sure he or she is a good fit, understands the job, and would be responsible enough to handle the demands and responsibilities of telecommuting.
Effectively supervising the telecommuter requires strong management skills. When choosing the right supervisor to manage the telecommuting program, employers should focus on the following characteristics.
Make sure supervisors understand the time and resources required to complete tasks. In addition, supervisors must be particularly adept at distributing work among employees when one or more of the employees will be telecommuting.
Supervisors must be able to communicate to employees what needs to be done, when it must be done, and who is responsible for seeing the project through to completion. The best method of communication, written or verbal, will depend on the individual telecommuter and supervisor. The time managers spend in communication of their expectations will affect the quality of the work produced by the telecommuter.
Supervisors must be able to develop with the telecommuters a method of communicating attainable and timely goals. Telecommuters who clearly understand the workload will be more focused in their work if they are required to maintain and follow a timetable. At a minimum, the timetable should list tasks or projects for completion and a corresponding deadline. As noted earlier, moreover it is vital that supervisors be aware that nonexempt telecommuters who work in excess of 40 hours per week will be entitled to overtime wages.
Supervisors should set up periodic reviews to monitor progress on projects or tasks for which the telecommuter is responsible. Any unsatisfactory performance should be brought to the employee’s attention immediately so that work habits can be improved. Effective supervisors will be able to manage for performance and results, as opposed to managing by observation alone. Since telecommuters must be supervised based on their performance, and not their presence in the workplace, supervisors must be able to achieve good performance without being in close proximity to the employee.
Supervisors must be able to set up avenues for the telecommuters to communicate with each other when necessary for the completion of particular projects. The ability to “network” with other telecommuters will also help reduce any feelings of isolation for the telecommuter. If possible, the telecommuter should be expected to come into the office on certain days for meetings and interaction with other employees and supervisors. Supervisors should also invite the participation of telecommuters in office activities, such as holiday celebrations, working lunches, and after-work get-togethers.
Employers are responsible for providing a safe workplace to all employees under the General Duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). When the employer does not directly control the workplace, as in the case of a home office, the employer is required to take “reasonable” steps to prevent foreseeable hazards, depending on the particular circumstances. Accordingly, employers should require a fire and safety inspection of the home office, and the use of proper electrical equipment, such as grounded wiring and surge protectors.
Employees who are selected for telecommuting must be able to set up an appropriate workspace at home. The space need not be an entire separate room, but it should be well-defined, in a safe location, and away from distractions. Adequate space must be available for files, office supplies, and telecommuting equipment. Other considerations include lighting, security of work materials, comfort, and safety.
Employers should consider providing some office furniture, such as a comfortable chair and desk, as well as the necessary computer and other telecommunications devices. A service maintenance policy for employer-provided equipment should be considered to provide for quick and cost-effective service in case of equipment failure. Verify that existing insurance coverage of company equipment will apply to the telecommunications equipment off-premises. If not, the employer should obtain the necessary level of coverage to protect its investment in employer-provided equipment.
Informal telecommuting should also be encouraged, and need not require the complete setup of a home office. For instance, many professionals prefer to work on specific projects at home, by using an employer-provided portable computer or even personal home computer equipment. The occasional use of telecommunications in such a manner is fairly well established in many industries.
The employer should enter into a written agreement with its telecommuters, which provides, at a minimum, the points covered on the Employer/Telecommuter Written Agreement Checklist under the files tab at the top of the chapter.
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