Telecommuting Tempest: 10 tips for crafting a viable teleworking policy

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer ended her company’s policy of allowing employees to work from home, she sparked a heated controversy. Predictably, the blogosphere lit up with harsh criticism, giving one the impression that Ms. Mayer is the personification of Cruella de Vil or the Queen of Mean, while others wondered how a nice Wausau girl could go so wrong.

Well, this Wausau West graduate now runs a major corporation with competitors like Google and Microsoft, and one where innovation is a core competency. In explaining her decision, Mayer reminded the skeptics that Yahoo’s future success depends on the kind of innovation that requires face-to-face collaboration in an office setting. In so doing, she provided a reminder that telecommuting, while a perfect arrangement for some employees in many companies, is not for everyone.

Mayer’s decision could make it more difficult for Yahoo to recruit and retain employees, but she has support from many who run business organizations, including Liz Eversoll, CEO of Madison’s SOLOMO Technology, Inc. a designer of mobile technology solutions. Eversoll has people work at home as needed, but she believes that workforce policies should advance the business in addition to serving the work-life needs of employees, and she praised Mayer for trying to change the culture at Yahoo.

“I ask that my employees work from here (the Madison office) at core working times because as an early-stage company, I do agree with Marissa Mayer that communication and collaboration are very important,” Eversoll said. “We can foster that much, much better in person.”

Still, many employers, particularly in the high-tech space, don’t particularly care when employees are doing the work, as long as the work gets done. The flexible option of telecommuting might be considered an attractive workforce arrangement, but the Yahoo controversy serves as a reminder that unless legal and human resource issues are adequately addressed, the advantages might not outweigh the potential pitfalls.

In deference to this technology-enabled workforce trend, IB presents 10 tips that will help you develop a sound and productive telecommuting program.

1: Highlight Human Resources

Teleworking is considered an employee benefit and is subject to wage-and-hour-law provisions, including overtime. If overtime is permitted, non-exempt employees who work more than 40 hours in a week still are owed overtime, even if they telecommute.

Don’t assume that because employees work offsite, they now are independent contractors or should be counted as freelance labor. “Any workplace, office or home, needs to provide, either physically provide or have it accessible to employees electronically or through an intranet, employment posters so they know their basic rights,” said Jane Clark, chief operating officer for QTI Human Resources. “In every workplace, there are employment posters that have information about wage-and-hour laws and the family-and-medical-leave laws if the company is of a large enough size. 

“So that is baseline. You have to make sure the employees have the employment posters or access to them.”

When offering telecommuting to people who are hourly and subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers have to make sure they are reporting their time, said Clark. Exempt or non-exempt, they should be accurately reporting their time to be in compliance with the act. Clark said that with telecommuters, this requires a greater level of trust, but if they are accessing your network, your IT employees should be able to ascertain what websites they have been on.

In Clark’s view, some of the human resource and legal concerns go hand in hand. The maintenance of confidential information is one example, especially if employees access the employer’s network through Citrix or another technology, if they download sensitive corporate information or personally confidential information onto their home computer, or if family members or others have access to that computer or the remote network that employees have.

2: Don’t Be Antisocial

The use of social media has introduced a rapidly evolving dimension, but the same National Labor Relations Board edicts about protected concerted activity – which protect communications about working conditions even if they are derogatory toward management, and even if they are tweeted out into cyberspace – must be adhered to for telecommuters.

“A lot of companies originally, when they were starting to use more social media, more electronic devices, were restrictive in their social media policies,” Clark said. “Given the recent NLRB actions, people have had to modify those policies to allow more free expression for employees. You are asking more in terms of usage. Anytime an employee is communicating on an employer’s device or accessing [the Internet] via the employer’s network, you as an employer do have a right to view it. It’s just a matter of what you are doing with the information you gather from that.”

3: Telegraph Your Telephony

The matter of who owns the communication devices and who pays what portion of the smart phone bills is covered on a company-by-company basis under the employer’s network, Internet, and equipment use policies. Areas to cover include: Is the phone 100% paid for and provided by the employer? Can employees purchase personal apps for work devices? Does the employee’s personal cell phone offer access to work emails? Can the worker use the company network to download data onto a personal home computer? Will the employee use a wireless Internet “hot spot” provided by the company?

Needless to say, for the transmission of work or the handling of company files outside the office, the company should require password protections and secure networks. 

Some employers are comfortable with a “bring-your-own-device” model, but there are different schools of thought. Many concede there are productivity gains with BYOD, but there are perils in picking up the tab. Other employers, citing a history of abuse when the employee owns a device subsidized by a “bill the company” arrangement, choose a more traditional model in which the company owns the phone.

As for reimbursements or plan usage, employers can establish different company liabilities based on differing job titles, but a person-by-person model is unwise. You can set the same reimbursements, such as a monthly stipend per employment class, because positions such as customer service technicians or field representatives typically have the highest expected business use.

When delineating between personal and work calls, expect some trial and error, counseled Nancy Warren, vice president of human resources for the Waukesha-based MRA, a not-for-profit employer association. “I’ve heard of companies that reimburse if you have a separate, handheld smart phone – perhaps they reimburse if it’s only for company purposes,” she said. “It’s also common to have one device and you reimburse for only the business aspect of that phone. But again, it depends on the type of work being done and the nature of the work, the volume of the work, and how much usage there is.”


SOLOMO Technology is a bring-your-own-device company, so employees use their personal devices for work and personal use, and the company has built security and process around that. Eversoll believes it’s too hard to separate the work and personal devices, and the company does not attempt to divide charges between personal and work calls.

“We don’t figure that out because they are bringing their own device to work. In most cases, they are paying for that particular device. We provide some [mobile] devices that remain here in the office and so they are being used primarily for work, but I don’t have any issue with someone who wants to email their kids, teachers, or something like that. I think it’s too hard to separate those things.”

As a technology company, TDS Telecommunications Corp. does not believe in a heavy-handed approach to device use. Drew Petersen, vice president of external affairs and corporate communications for TDS, said employees have a defined system login to the network; during that timeframe, the company has visibility into their workday. With respect to personal calls, the company has a reasonable degree of flexibility. “In the course of the day, you take business and personal calls, and we expect our employees to be making good judgments about the appropriate balance of that,” he said. “We don’t have to be high or heavy-handed on the enforcement of the level of personal use because they are highly measured on their performance.

“It’s immediately apparent when an employee is not engaged directly with a customer or is away from workplace activities for a period of time.”

In Wisconsin, texting or emailing while driving is illegal, so Clark advises employers to encourage employees not to run afoul of the law, no matter who owns the device. A formal policy prohibiting work-related texting or cell phone use while driving is recommended because the employer is responsible for the employee if he or she is engaged in work while driving a vehicle.

4: Establish Ergonomic Essentials

Ergonomics is another matter that requires executive suite attention, even if the worker telecommutes, because of the workers’ comp angle. So, yes, employers must ensure that desktop, office chair, and other accommodations in the home office make ergonomic sense. “Just because someone is working on a home computer, that doesn’t mean that the carpal tunnel they have developed from working at home isn’t covered,” Clark warned. “You could have workers’ comp carriers go in and assess the ergonomics of that [home] workplace.”

5: Define By Duty

Is there any type or classification of employee that should not be considered for telecommuting? Not really. Telecommuting policy must stay clear of discriminatory considerations and instead be predicated on job responsibility and duties.

Noting that every company is different, TDS’s Petersen said Marissa Mayer is trying to get Yahoo back to a culture of innovation, which requires all hands on deck. In contrast, TDS has a very different culture than Yahoo, one in which certain employees either interact directly with customers at the retail level or interact from a sales support or repair standpoint.

About 150 of TDS’s 3,000 employees participate in the company’s work-at-home program. They account for roughly 5% of the company’s workforce, which is spread out among 31 states. “We find that our customer care advisors can be far more productive in a work-at-home environment because they don’t have the distractions of an office environment,” Petersen said. “Telecommuting is not for everybody, but we’ve certainly seen great productivity gains for the folks who have adopted it.”

6: Invent Your Inventory

TDS has developed an inventory of pre-qualifications (see sidebar story on previous page) for telecommuting employees such as length of service. The company views telecommuting as a benefit that is earned, and employees who earn it are regularly reviewed to ensure their work performance remains at a high level. 

“Some of it is gaining strong familiarity for TDS and our enterprise,” Petersen explained. “It’s a highly complex business, so employees must have a strong foundation in what we do each day, and the corporate culture we show to customers. We try to do a good job of identifying who those employees are and then offer it to them as an added benefit, something for them to contemplate.”

7: Prep Your Pilot 

TDS’s implementation approach was to incubate the concept as a pilot, which began in 2008 with about 20 people. Prior to that, Petersen created a business case for telecommuting that included recruiting and retention advantages along with anticipated productivity gains, and the company has steadily built what it calls the WAH (Work at Home) program into a viable option for employees.

According to Petersen, the company has seen large gains in productivity, decreases in absenteeism and, albeit anecdotally, even improved health among employees who telecommute. “One of the most compelling stories we hear is that because our work-at-home employees don’t have travel obligations, there are a number of employees who have lost considerable weight. Instead of a $10 lunch that they eat at a desk, they tend to eat healthier from home.

“It’s something we never anticipated.”

For TDS, there is also a business-continuity rationale. In a given year, a company operating in 31 states will see its fair share of fires, floods, ice storms, and tornadoes. Combined with its call-routing and email-routing systems, the work-at-home environment provides TDS with a disaster recovery option so that it can ensure itself and its customers some level of business continuity. “We can deal with inclement weather if people can’t get to work because of a snowstorm in New England,” he noted. “We can buttress them in a difficult location.”

8: Mix It Up

Based on the Yahoo rationale, are jobs that require a lot of collaboration therefore ill-suited for telecommuting? The answer might lie somewhere in the middle. “Each company has to make that determination,” Warren said. “We hear from companies that one method of dealing with that is a mixed schedule, so to speak, because a lot of telecommuters are not really as comfortable working offsite five days a week. There are companies that set a schedule where workers perhaps come in one day a week so they get that camaraderie, collaboration, and team-building in person. We think there are a lot of ways to work around or with that situation.”

9: Explain Expectations

At SOLOMO, every aspect of telecommuting, from BYOD to employee expectations, is covered in the company’s values statement and employee handbook. “They have goals they need to complete,” Eversoll stated. “If they are not hitting their goals, then we’ll work with that individual to make sure that they are meeting their goals. I believe if we set out the vision and everyone knows what their objectives are, we should achieve that and we shouldn’t have to micromanage.”

10: Don’t Fight It

Telecommuting is contributing to some very important societal trends. Not only does it enable young mothers to work from home, it has no doubt contributed to the 9% drop in vehicle miles driven since the peak year of 2005. As a result of the trend in telecommuting and more energy-efficient cars, the United States now consumes 1.5 billion fewer barrels of oil per day (down to 17.5 billion from 19 billion in 2000), which is having a positive impact on carbon emissions.

In light of estimates that 63 million people, or 43% of the U.S. workforce, will be teleworking by 2016, it’s doubtful that recent corporate cutbacks will completely curtail the practice. Whether telecommuters tap into their creative energy from 9 to 5, or whether telecommuting enables them to work whenever the inspiration strikes, the practice will continue to contribute a lot of positives, but employers have to take steps to ensure that it makes sense for all parties. 


A Model Policy for Working at Home

For companies seeking advice about setting up a telecommuter program, perhaps there is no better illustration of an employer that can serve as an example (both as an employer and as an enabler) than TDS Telecommunications.

The company has established several foundational requirements for its non-exempt/hourly employees who are approved for working at home. Such employees must have the following characteristics:

• Be an employee of TDS for at least one year (temporary or contractor employment time included).

• Be in the same advisor position for at least six months.

• Have full-time status, working at least 40 hours consistently each week.

• Have an overall quarterly performance rating of “Successful” or above at the end of the previous two quarters.

• Have no disciplinary action on their records in the previous 12 months. 

On the technology/security side, TDS Telecom’s work-at-home employees need the following:

• A minimum 1.5-meg TDS Internet connection available to their home residence (if in TDS serving territory, this is fully underwritten by the company).

• Their home must have private, quiet space to work – space where the employee can work uninterrupted by outside and inside noise (pets, music, appliances, etc.), and where business telephone conversations will not be disrupted by noise of any nature. 

• They must be able to supply a desk/workspace, chair, and keyboard tray (if necessary). 

• They can’t be the primary caregiver of a child or dependent during work hours. 

• Their home needs to be located in a state where TDS Telecom is a registered employer. 

• All duties performed must be able to be completed from home. 

• They must be able to safeguard company equipment from non-company employees (i.e., prevent theft or unauthorized access), or from damage from pets, smoke, or water.

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