The option to telecommute for work is a significant benefit for employees. A 2019 Buffer survey reported that 99 percent of those they interviewed wanted the opportunity to telecommute at least occasionally, and it’s no surprise why — telecommuting provides workers more flexibility and a better work-life balance.
But while employers have often viewed telecommuting as a “perk” to extend only to some employees, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it apparent that it’s often a necessity for business continuity. Businesses can no longer afford to ignore telecommuting or treat it as merely a bonus for employees.
Whether your business is ready for a permanent telecommuting program or has implemented it temporarily as an emergency option, you need an official telecommuting policy in place. A set of guidelines regarding telecommuting can help your organization avoid the potential pitfalls of remote work as well as create the right conditions for continued productivity.
Below are the basic steps involved in drafting a telecommuting policy that supports both your organization and employees — and promotes good work habits and performance.
Steps of drafting a telecommuting policy
- Set the goals and context for your telecommuting policy
- Consult legal counsel and any relevant stakeholders
- Draft your policy
1. Set the goals and context for your telecommuting policy
Before you begin drafting your policy, first consider your goals for doing so. Do you need a telecommuting policy just in case — for business continuity reasons? Or do you want to make it an option for employees during regular business operations? What do you hope to achieve with telecommuting — to attract new talent, reduce costs, improve employee job satisfaction? Your answers to these questions should inform how you shape your policy and define its terms.
Take a look at some example policies from companies you respect. Every company’s policy should be unique to address its specific needs, but you may get some ideas as to the scope and procedures you find relevant to your organization’s telecommuting scenario.
2. Consult legal counsel and any relevant stakeholders
Depending on your industry and location, telecommuting can have compliance implications, so it’s important to consult with your legal department or legal counsel before putting any policy in place.
Some areas where potential compliance issues may arise include
- Liability and workers’ compensation for offsite workers
- Wage and timekeeping standards, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act for nonexempt employees
- Equal Employment Opportunity Act compliance
- Privacy and confidentiality standards for sensitive data
Also, be sure to consult your managers and any other relevant stakeholders — such as HR and finance — in the process. All of their input combined ensures there won’t be any glaring holes in your policy.
3. Draft your policy
To be effective, a telecommuting policy should touch on certain basic concepts. Here are some of the most important areas to cover — as well as the questions you should seek to answer when you draft your policy.
Eligibility and approval process
Establish eligibility guidelines by defining who is eligible to work remotely, when, how often, and how employees gain approval for doing so.
To determine these guidelines, consider the following factors:
- Positions or job titles. Are certain roles better suited for telecommuting?
- Individual employees. Is the option to telecommute earned by meeting certain individual criteria, such as performance metrics or length of time at the company? Can team members lose the option to telecommute by falling below given standards?
- Circumstances. Perhaps you want to give the option to telecommute only during certain times or for external circumstances. These may include certain days or time periods, societal factors (such as during pandemics), individual circumstances (such as a team member feeling they are at risk of illness), or other approved reasons, such as travel or life events.
Time tracking and availability
Set clear guidelines about when you expect workers to be available. Do they need to work during office hours, partly overlap with office hours, or can they work at any time they choose? Do they need to be available for certain meetings? Also, consider whether some meetings should be held in person rather than remotely.
If you have non-salaried employees, ensure they accurately record all hours worked in an approved time-tracking system and that excess hours are approved by their supervisor.
When setting communication guidelines, try to answer two major questions:
- What modes of communication will we use? Define the channels you expect employees to use to communicate with the rest of the team, such as a messaging app like Slack, email, video calls, and/or phone calls.
- What level of responsiveness do you expect? Define expectations about how quickly employees need to respond to messages from managers and/or the rest of the team. Although it’s a good idea to create some guidelines around responsiveness for the sake of productivity and team cohesion, remember to allow telecommuters the space they need to do their work without constant interruption.
To ensure telecommuters are getting their jobs done, it’s important to set standards for what they need to achieve in a given timeframe. These standards will vary by role. You don’t need to be overly specific in the policy document, but setting clear and transparent benchmarks on what employees need to accomplish and how you’ll measure productivity puts everyone’s mind at ease regarding what your organization expects.
Depending on the size of your company, this may be something for each manager to decide for their team; for smaller organizations, it could be a company-wide decision.
Equipment, tools, supplies, and workspace
Telecommuters need the right tools to do their jobs. Outline the equipment and tools workers should use — such as software and apps, hardware, and other physical items. Decide which of these your organization will purchase for employees, which you will reimburse employees for purchasing (such as hardware and software), and which items employees need to provide themselves (such as office furniture).
Also, consider whether the telecommuter’s home office or workspace needs to meet certain standards. This may include physical safety and security guidelines to protect the employee from risk of injury as well as to protect company equipment and data.
Without the protections typically implemented in the office environment, employees working offsite may be vulnerable to security risks — such as using unsecured networks or exposing sensitive data to others. Consult your IT department to define cybersecurity standards, such as tracking and securing offsite devices, providing all necessary security software, and controlling remote access to company networks.
Your organization should provide best practices to telecommuters regarding network security, maintaining confidentiality, and protecting sensitive data.
In an office setting, appearance matters. If you hold your onsite employees to standards of professionalism in areas such as personal grooming, attire, and communications, the same standards should also apply to offsite workers to a reasonable extent. While they obviously can be a little looser, the same standards of professionalism you would expect of team members meeting face to face should apply for virtual interactions such as video meetings.
Finally, remember that your telecommuting policy can — and should — be a living document. As your organization learns what works (and what doesn’t) for its particular needs, you can continually refine and adapt your approach to telecommuting.