Telecommuting is a valuable tool for companies in their quest to attract and retain talent. The flexibility provided by work-at-home arrangements allows employees to craft better work/life balance and save on commuting expenses that can include gas, tolls, car maintenance, and even child care.
Employers also can save money — by one estimate, almost $11,000 per employee, per year. Illinois even has a law that allows some employers to earn emissions reductions credits for setting up telecommuting programs.
But the practice isn’t without challenges. Managing remote employees requires a different skillset, and some collaboration can be lost with workers in different physical locations. There also are some important legal considerations attached to telecommuting, and employers who want to offer this option should keep some of these telecommuting best practices in mind.
Take steps to secure data
As ever more information is digitized and made accessible via online networks, cybersecurity takes on greater importance. A home-based worker who accesses company email or other data could dramatically increase vulnerability to hackers. Establish a strong firewall and use a VPN client to keep data behind it. Restrict access to secured wireless networks to prevent workers from logging in at a coffee shop, for example. If sensitive company information falls into the wrong hands, the legal ramifications can be deep and wide.
Working at home shouldn’t be limited to certain groups, such as mothers of small children. The Illinois Human Rights Act protects workers from unfair treatment based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics. Establishing a telecommuting policy that applies evenly to all workers might help protect you from a workplace discrimination claim.
Be aware of the home working environment
Liability doesn’t end at the company’s front door. If an employee is injured in the home while working, they may be able to file a worker’s compensation claim. Provide guidelines for employees to establish a dedicated workspace in their home to limit risk, and be mindful of ergonomics. A long-term, repetitive stress injury is no different than a sudden fall when it comes to establishing liability.
Implement a timecard system
Most home-based workers are exempt, and therefore do not need to consider the number of hours they work. But in case non-exempt employees work remotely, a system to record the hours worked can protect both the employee and the company. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act says non-exempt employees must be paid a time-and-a-half rate for more than 40 hours of work in any week. And employers certainly should expect to get all the work they pay for.
Protect company property
If employees are using company-issued equipment, such as laptops, printers, or phones, in a home office, employers will want to take steps to protect their investment. As part of a broader telecommuting policy, establish how equipment is to be used, how and when it is to be serviced and/or replaced, and how the employee is responsible for protecting the equipment. In most cases, it is best to have employees not use their own personal equipment for work tasks. Tools and materials are among the tests the IRS uses to determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor. There’s no reason to blur that line.
If you’ve reviewed these best practices for telecommuting and find that you may be vulnerable to legal headaches, contact the Wood Law Office for a review of the legal strength of your policies.