6 Important things to know if you let employees work from home
Working from home or telecommuting is a growing trend in this country. The benefits are improved employee morale, increased productivity, less workforce turnover and lower office overhead costs.
The decision to adopt it within your company depends on various factors, including the ability of employees to work unsupervised on a daily basis and still function as part of a collaborative team.
Should you decide it makes good business sense to let employees work from home, you must still address some important legal issues. Otherwise, you could derail your program and lose out on the great benefits.
1. Put your company agreement in writing
Before you roll out your telecommuting program, develop a written policy to be implemented by the company. The policy may require the employee and supervisor to sign additional documents detailing the program and the company’s expectations. It should make clear that employees are still obligated to follow the company business rules and ethical codes. It should also define the work products that the employee is expected to produce each pay period and whether the employee is obligated to be on call during certain times or attend meetings on site. Lastly, the policy should reserve your general right to pull the employee back to the office if required.
2. Protect yourself against claims of discrimination
Claims of discrimination can result if you refuse an employee’s request to work from home. So ensure your policy documentation gives objective criteria for allowing telecommuting. Along with job responsibilities, these could include job performance, disciplinary history and company seniority.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which oversees matters related to workplace discrimination, has ruled that working from home is a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. This means if a disabled employee claims telecommuting is a reasonable accommodation; you may have to approve the request unless other factors mitigate the reasonableness. For example, you may have to prove that the employee’s physical presence in the office is essential to the job.
3. Safeguard company property
If you are providing employees with electronic or technical equipment as part of the arrangement, have them sign a document acknowledging receipt of the equipment and requesting they take care to prevent damage or theft of the equipment. You might also want to indicate who will repair or replace damaged or stolen equipment. The acknowledgement could go so far as to limit employees’ use of company equipment for non-business matters and require its return upon termination of employment.
4. Ensure the security of data
Your telecommuting policy must have provisions to protect the confidentiality of proprietary and sensitive company information accessed remotely by employees. You may want to obtain a signed acknowledgement from telecommuters indicating they understand the potential for monitoring without notice during work hours. Computer files and documents along with computers and telephone lines could be suspect to such monitoring. This action will forestall any legal expectation of privacy on the part of employees working at home. You may also consider prohibiting access to company information over public or other non-secure networks or servers.
5. Be mindful of workers’ compensation
You as an employer are not protected from workers’ compensation claims if employees work at home since employers in most states are liable for injuries that occur to employees in the course of employment wherever they happen. This being the case, it would pay to ask your workers’ compensation carrier whether injuries at an employee’s home are covered under your policy.
To help curb safety problems, employers should require telecommuters to designate a specific area at home to serve as an office and to take lunch and other breaks at predetermined times. You should remind employees to promptly follow procedures for reporting any work-related injury wherever it may happen. You must keep records of all such work-related injuries no matter the location of occurrence.
6. Track all hours worked
The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay employees at or above the federal minimum wage for all hours worked and to pay overtime for hours in excess of 40 per work week. The law applies to telecommuters as well employees in the work place. Though challenging to do in the absence of a watchful supervisor, this makes an employer’s obligation to track non-exempt employee hours very important. Otherwise, you risk costly fines.
To this end, companies sometimes include provisions in the telecommuting agreement requiring an employee not to work more than 40 hours per work week without prior written authorization. You may want to do likewise and even have employees sign in and out via e-mail and report hours worked on a daily basis. Or you could simply limit the ability to work at home to exempt employees, who are legally free to work off-the-clock.
While these legal considerations are not exhaustive or complete, they highlight the issues you need to address before you let employees work from home.
Michael (Mike) Geller has been a business lawyer for over 25 years. He has an extensive background in Corporate and Health Care Law – from compliance to commercial matters to labor and employment issues. An expert litigator, he is one of the rare attorneys who can counsel his clients in the boardroom, teach staff in the classroom and defend a client’s concerns in the court room.