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A Guide to Create a Telecommuting Policy During the Coronavirus

Businesses can benefit from a telecommuting policy. Updated with best practices for employers implementing a telework policy during the coronavirus outbreak.
A business woman telecommuting

Working from home has emerged as more than a workplace trend. It’s now become a critical health and safety measure for many employees. Back in 2019, the Paychex Pulse of HR Survey found that 14% of employees at HR leaders’ companies worked from home either full- or part-time. In 2020, specifically as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the number of employees working remotely has increased at a rapid pace – leaving employers to quickly adapt during these unprecedented times.

State and local mandates requiring non-essential employees to shelter in place have resulted in many workers working from home, possibly for the first time ever. Given such circumstances, a comprehensive telecommuting policy is essential for businesses that want to keep operations moving efficiently and effectively, all while making sure that employees are safe and stay on task.

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What is telecommuting?

Telecommuting can be defined as a setup where an employee works outside of a company’s central office, warehouse, plant, or store. An employee may work at home, on the road, or in a satellite location for all or part of their workweek. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are now advising non-essential employees to work from home specifically.

Differences between telecommuting vs. remote work

While similar, telecommuting and remote work have distinct characteristics. Telecommuting, or telework, can be defined as employees working outside of the office but within the geographic area of the office. Under normal circumstances, they can be at the work site when necessary. Remote work implies that the employee lives outside of the geographic area of the work site, but can also be defined as working away from the office on a more permanent basis.

Telecommuting pros and cons

Work-from-home policies are essential in situations such as a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic or other major business disruption that prevent employees from physically coming into work. While many businesses and employees may currently be required to work from home, there are many telecommuting pros and cons to consider if you’re considering putting a policy into place.

Benefits of telecommuting for employers

Telecommuting policies can benefit employers and employees alike. Here's a look at some of them:

Enhanced productivity

Perhaps the single greatest objection to telecommuting from the employer's perspective is the "out of sight, out of mind" concern — the belief that if employees aren't required to work in an office setting, they probably won't work at all. But now more than ever, there may be no other choice but to work at home for many employees nationwide. With support from supervisors backed by HR, employees can find ways to adapt and stay productive. Some employees may also thrive in such a working environment.

Fewer workplace distractions

Many employees find that being out of the office enables them to focus more effectively on their jobs. Distractions and interruptions are common in a workplace setting, while a controlled home environment often increases an employee's ability to concentrate on a particular task for a longer period of time. Keep in mind that during a difficult time such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, employees both at home and at work may be struggling with their own challenges. Acknowledge that this may be a tough time and provide support where you can (an employee assistance program and financial wellness tools are great resources).

Boost in employee morale

Allowing employees to work remotely, whether on a temporary basis or all the time, may result in higher employee engagement and morale due to factors like:

  • Increased opportunities to eat better, exercise, and improve healthy living habits
  • More flexibility to care for family members and loved ones during difficult times
  • Eliminating daily stresses such as commuting to work
  • Appreciation that their employer is looking out for their safety and well-being during situations such as a public health emergency or other major business disruption

Improved recruiting

Businesses that actively support a remote work program often see this as a key differentiator in their recruitment efforts. Plus, employers can broaden their search for qualified prospective employees beyond the immediate vicinity, since proximity to the worksite may no longer be a factor.

Disadvantages of telecommuting

Executing telecommuting policies doesn’t come without challenges, particularly around managing workers and ensuring that work is getting done.

Management and oversight of work

Managing from afar can be difficult without the ability to meet or stop by in person. Supervisors may have to connect more frequently with team members to ensure that tasks and projects are progressing, making sure to balance frequent check-ins without micromanaging.

Security and confidentiality of information

Shifting work and communication fully online can leave businesses vulnerable to potential cyberthreats. Cybercriminals may also ramp up their efforts during sensitive times such as COVID-19.

Benefits administration

Employees may have questions, particularly during a public health emergency, about their health insurance and other benefits. During stressful situations, HR teams may not have the bandwidth to answer questions or complete benefits administration tasks.

Telecommuting best practices for employers during the coronavirus pandemic

If you have employees working at home due to shelter-in-place orders as a result of COVID-19, there are some telework best practices you can implement to help keep productivity and morale up, all while ensuring that staff members stay safe.

Establish a coronavirus-specific telework policy

Many businesses have had to act quickly in response to the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have employees who are now working from home, a policy specific to this public health emergency may address the following areas:

Utilize collaboration tools and videoconferencing

Applications such as WebEx and Zoom are popular videoconferencing tools to leverage for meetings and periodic check-ins. This can also help employees – who may be struggling with feelings of isolation since they no longer have daily face-to-face interactions with teammates – stay connected to others. Your coronavirus telework policy may want to address which technologies are approved to use, as well as any training for using them.

Protect important information with remote cybersecurity measures

As noted above, businesses may be vulnerable to cybersecurity threats when employees are home and working online. To mitigate potential threats, make sure that you follow cybersecurity best practices around passwords and approved programs, and communicate these guidelines to employees.

Outline reimbursement policies for personal equipment used during coronavirus telework period

If an employee is required to work from home, they may leverage their own equipment such as a cell phone or printer to complete certain tasks. Employers may be required to reimburse employees for costs associated with using these devices for work purposes. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Employers may not require employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act to pay or reimburse the employer for such items that are business expenses of the employer if doing so reduces the employee's earnings below the required minimum wage or overtime compensation.”

Tips for implementing a telecommuting policy

If you choose to move forward with telecommuting for your business, whether it’s temporarily or as an established policy, what are some of the necessary steps for effective implementation — both on your and HR’s part? Here are key elements to keep in mind:

Have a plan

Depending on the situation, you may have to act quickly to get employees working remotely. But without even an interim or short-term plan, this can leave employees vulnerable to confusion over schedules, potential feelings of resentment, or missed project deadlines. If you’re able to, determine beforehand which positions best lend themselves to telecommuting, and which positions are essential to be onsite at the business. Shelter-in-place orders for essential businesses and workers may dictate this, so you may want to consider working with an HR professional or attorney to ensure you’re complying with applicable state and local laws.

Clarify expectations

To help avoid some of the potential issues listed above, it is essential for employees to fully understand what is expected of them while telecommuting. Together with managers, outline what work is expected to be completed on a daily or weekly basis. Determine specific hours when employees should be working and available. Ongoing communications between employees and managers is critical for productivity.

Require active HR involvement 

HR professionals can help the organization adapt to the changes that can come with having a telecommuting policy. For example, an employee whose role requires them to come into the office may resent those who can work from home. In such cases, your HR team can interact with potentially disgruntled team members, and outline the steps being taken to ensure their safety.

Formalize your policies

If you plan to implement this policy long-term, the HR team can be instrumental in drafting what goes into your employee handbook regarding work-from-home policies. If, for example, this is a temporary work setup that is effective only for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, documenting policies is still a best practice that can help employees when they have questions or need clarification.

Communicate with employees

In addition to communicating the policy through a handbook or other written policy, consider providing ongoing updates via company newsletters, regular email updates, a message from the CEO, and wherever else employees are informed about company business.

Consider a trial period

If the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time that you have had remote employees, you may want to consider this as a trial period to determine whether telecommuting would work long-term for your organization or specific job roles. Although these are difficult times, consider analyzing the completion of projects, quality of customer service, and overall employee morale to determine if this work arrangement could be effective once shelter-in-place orders have been lifted.

The right approach and commitment to an effective policy can help you execute work-from-home guidelines at your business. Whether you’re implementing this temporarily or permanently, you may need to continually evaluate the policy and adjust as you go. An HR professional can help you through this process, as well as help you comply with any laws and regulations that pertain to your business.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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