Telecommuting: things to consider before implementing

When computers started to appear in the workplace, people were enthralled with how such equipment would change how we work. Many expected an overnight revolution. There is no doubt technology has changed our lives, but it didn’t happen quite as fast as some people thought. It seems people and organizations address change in multiple ways. In fact, like most any profile of activity, when you look at large numbers, it generally turns out to be a bell curve distribution of behavior. Now, that is not to say it is exactly a perfect bell curve every time. But, in general terms, some people do the behavior a lot or quickly, where those on the other end of the spectrum do it only a little or very slowly, with the vast majority of folks somewhere in the middle.

What does this have to do with telecommuting? It is another behavior issue that continues to evolve and will be another major change in how we do business. This is actually a practice that has been around for quite some time but has been picking up and evolving noticeably in recent years due to multiple influential elements.

Originally, the factor that was pushing the concept was employees making the request because they were spending a lot of time on the road due to traffic and the location of their home. The requestor often made the pitch for telecommuting by saying instead of spending three hours on the road each day, that time could be utilized on behalf of the employer. These people initially were salaried staff that could work independently, and you didn’t have to track hours or manage other types of administrative practices.

The evolution

While these considerations still support the practice, over time, other factors have come into play. A big one, of course, is technology, which facilitates communication and remote access to information. However, others also are beginning to have a notable influence.

One such factor is the popularity of the option. In a tight labor market, it is viewed as a recruiting tool. It also is a cost factor. It can be beneficial in limiting the amount of costly office space, furniture and parking. Yes, the employees still come to the office, but they operate under a “hoteling” set up, where they don’t have an assigned spot and share the facilities with other employees. Laptops and cellphones clearly facilitate this operating practice. It is other tools, such as Skype, GoToMeeting-type applications, webinars, document scanning, file sharing and other cloud processes, that allow location flexibility while still permitting effective support of clients/customers and multiple business practices. We could go on about what is driving the practice, but suffice it to say, it isn’t going away and is likely to get more pervasive.

Looking down the road

So what do we need to think about as we look down the road? First of all, don’t think that because the employee is not in the building and visible that labor regulations don’t apply. Not only do they apply, but they may in some instances be a little more difficult to manage. For example, if the telecommuter has an accident at home during “regular” business hours, is it a worker compensation claim? How do you count hours for overtime compliance? Not all people working out of their house are overtime exempt under the FLSA regulations, e.g., the administrator who might be processing the worker compensation claim.

Another factor to consider may be other interests or personal demands that the home worker may want to pursue. They may have small children or a disabled parent who need care and working from home provides better care and reduces family expense. But how do you deal with the issue where the other interest is a part-time job or business? Do you have rules that address conflicts of interest? Are there procedures for expected hours of availability or equipment and privacy concerns? Does the employee’s supervisor manage and assign responsibilities the same way?

With regards to this latter issue, it may be important to not only have the organization recognize and communicate that telecommuting is to be available under certain circumstances, but it is important to assure supervisors embrace the concept and they are coached in how to manage in such circumstances. From the employee’s view, this will be perceived as a benefit, and if they are prevented from taking advantage of it because a supervisor doesn’t like it or has a negative disposition toward those who request the option, it can become an employee relations matter on multiple fronts. So, setting the ground rules for all concerned is a must. Don’t forget that even though the organization is supportive of the concept, there still is an effective operation to be done, and pieces of it may not reasonably be done in a remote operating strategy.

A tool to build your organization

I noted above telecommuting is viewed as a positive recruiting tool, but it may be more than just better benefits, like extra vacation. It may have special appeal to a large and growing segment of the labor force: millennials. It is a highly held belief that work-life balance is a strong aspect of their work behavior. Another consideration associated with this group is the desire to be involved with their work. They want to see the whole picture and believe they can take on lots of important things; they just need the right information and the defined objectives.

Addressing this type of operating environment can be beneficial to working with millennials, it also supports an environment that leads to engaged employees of all types, which contributes to an improved bottom line. This same communication program is essential to making telecommuters an effective element of your team. It takes a bit of planning and concerted, consistent effort, but generally, everybody comes out as a winner when there is trust, organization, clarity of operation and information about expectations and objectives.

While I have been addressing the idea of telecommuting from an internal perspective with employer and employee considerations, you should not overlook the value it can bring to the clients and customers. You might actually be getting your staff closer to the people you serve. Embrace technology rather than fight it, and you might jump on the bandwagon, learn how best to use it and use telecommuting as an operating tool to build your business.

Ardon Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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