Telecommuting and Flexible Work Arrangements: Do Them Right

Flexible hours and working from home are benefits that many nonprofits want to implement, but are not sure how to do it fairly and in a way that acknowledges the value of having people in the office together. Robin Erickson, Director of Finance and Administration for an environmental organization, shares with us two documents that reflect her organization's thinking on these issues: one is a process for analyzing requests, and one is a sample document (reviewed by HR attorneys) for employees who work from home to sign.

Working from home and other alternative work arrangements are desirable for several reasons: flexible hours can help employees and their families; telecommuting can save time and expense and natural resources, and customized arrangements can help retain valuable employees. But it's also hard to manage such flexibility fairly and balance it with the benefits of proximity in mind. At Save the Bay, with a modest office workforce of 26, we knew we couldn't afford to universally approve every request, so we devised a process for evaluating requests.

First, supervisors complete the following questionnaire when they receive a request from an employee:

Alternative Work Arrangement Questionnaire for Supervisors

Supervisors should complete this form upon receiving a request.

Supervisor:                                Date:

Employee submitting request and title:

Description of request (for example, to telecommute on Fridays, to work four ten-hour days per week, to work from 11 am - 7:30 pm each day, etc.)

1. Position and impact to organization

  • Is the position compatible with the request? For example, administrative positions that support the rest of the staff, provide a lot of customer service, or positions that entail  limited time in the office because the work is performed  regularly in the field don't lend themselves well to alternative work arrangements.
  • What will the impact be on the rest of staff, including supervisor, supervisor's supervisor, and other staff? For example, who will cover for the employee when they aren't available?
  • How strong is the impact? For example, working outside core hours one day a week is relatively low impact while telecommuting three days per week is relatively high.

2. Employee performance:

  • Has the employee proven him/herself dependable?
  • Has the employee proven him/herself capable of working independently?
  • Does the employee have a track record of meeting goals and achieving work plan outcomes?
  • How important is it for our organization to retain this employee?

3. Does the request create cause for concern that the position just isn't a good fit for the employee? For example, if the employee indicates that working 40 hrs a week is too much then a request for telecommuting isn't going to solve the problem.

(For telecommuting requests only) 4. Is the employee's home office equipped with the following:

  • Broadband internet access
  • Computer with ability to access the organization's server and email
  • Printer
  • Phone
  • Ergonomically correct workstation furniture

5. What is your recommendation regarding this request?

Evaluating requests

Next, as the Director of Finance and Administration, I review the questionnaire and present my recommendation, along with the supervisor's, to our Executive Director, who makes the final decision on all employment agreements. If the request is approved, we memorialize that the arrangement will be granted on a 3-month trial period, at which time the supervisor and employee will evaluate whether it is a productive arrangement worth continuing. This step, along with all of our employees' annual reviews, includes confidential peer reviews to gauge the experience of co-workers.

If the approved request involves telecommuting, the employee signs an additional form. The one below is not exactly the same as the one we use at Save the Bay -- Blue Avocado's "Ask Rita in HR" attorneys have reviewed it and made some revisions to make it applicable to a wider array of organizations:

Telecommuting Agreement

1. Employee's name and title:

2. Telecommuting Arrangement -- day(s) and times of the week:

3. The opportunity to telecommute on the day(s) and time(s) listed above has been provided to me by _____ Organization. The organization can revoke this privilege at any time, and employment at this organization is on an at-will basis. By signing below, I agree to:

A. Bear all costs related to the establishment and maintenance of my home workstation, including but not limited to:

  • Broadband internet access
  • Computer with ability to access the organization's server and email
  • Printer
  • Phone
  • Ergonomically correct furniture

B. Ensure that my home workstation is safe, secure, and free from distraction. Abide by all safety protocols set forth by the organization. To ensure that safe work conditions exist and that other policies are followed, I know that I must allow organizational representatives to inspect my designated workplace at any time during my regular working hours on any scheduled workday.

C. Be available by phone and email during the times agreed upon by me and my supervisor while telecommuting. Telecommuters who are overtime non-exempt employees must complete a daily time sheet, and either "log on" to their computer or call in to work at the beginning of the workday and "log out" or call in at the conclusion of the workday. A non-exempt telecommuter must also take and log his or  her required breaks and must obtain pre-approval to work any overtime in accordance with our nonprofit's policy. Exempt telecommuters working overtime should make arrangements with their Managers for tracking the work they perform while telecommuting.

D. Check phone and email messages regularly while telecommuting, no less frequently than every two hours, unless I am attending an offsite meeting on behalf of the organization or have prior approval from my supervisor. In some instances staying on live chat with other employees will be desirable or required.

E. Agree that no third party visitor meetings will occur at the telecommute location. All meetings will occur at the organization's office or the other party's office or location.

F. Promptly return all organizational paper files taken home on telecommuting days and keep all confidential files in a secure location at my workstation while they are in my possession. Note: Personnel files are never to be taken offsite.

G. Follow all agency policies, including the policies for prevention and reporting of safety concerns and prohibited harassment. Agree that all agency policies (including our policy on proper use of electronic communications which allows employer access to all electronic communications) applies equally to communications made from a home computer.

Employee's signature and date:

How it's worked out for us

While many sources maintain that telecommuting saves companies money by decreasing office expenses, I cannot say that this is true for our organization because of our particular infrastructure; however, I do believe that it helps control turnover and therefore decreases employee recruitment and training costs.

And there's no doubt that it would be more convenient for our organization as a whole to have the entire staff present Monday-Friday, 9:00-5:30. However, as long as supervisors actively and regularly monitor the effectiveness of their employees' 

alternative work arrangements, it is definitely to the organization's advantage to have a satisfied workforce.

When Robin Erickson isn't working at Save the Bay, she enjoys night gardening and her off-the-grid cabin in northern California's Mendocino County. She's pictured here on a weekend -- not while telecommuting! -- with her son Teo.

See also in Blue AvocadoWorking from Home: Sidebar on Legal Issues for Nonprofits

Canadian readers: Our friends at Charity Village have adapted this article to be in alignment with Canadian law; you can find it here.

Share this > Read more

Comments

I'm curious as to why the telecommuting employee should be expected to "Bear all costs related to the establishment and maintenance of my home workstation," including computer equipment. If the employee was in the office, the company would provide a computer which would be upgraded over time. If the company buys new equipment for in-office empoyees, why not for the telecommuter?
I think many companies follow your example but the rationale for it seems murky to me. Telecommuting is not a perk. If the employer agrees to the arrangement, it becomes a condition of a job, and the employer should be prepared to equip their telecommuter with what they need to do their job, same as any other employee.
Also, if the employee uses a computer not maintained by your IT group, you are leaving yourself open to viruses.

It seems to me that the description of the above telecommuting arrangement definitely describes this as a perk rather than a condition of employment. It seems the employer makes clear that they would prefer that all employees work from the nonprofit's office, thus the employee providing their own work station seems legit.
I employ someone who I require to work from a distant home office. In that case, the home office is a condition of employment and in that case our nonprofit does pay for the items in that office...desk, filing cabinet, phone, computer, internet access, etc.
With regard to viruses, the agreement does say that your home office can be inspected at any time. They could be clearer, but that could be construed to include your home computer, and a requirement could be added that a particular virus protection be employed.

I would suggest it is because telecommuting is for the ease of the employee, not the employer. If you look at IRS guidelines for writing off a home office, it has to meet the standard that you are working at home for the ease of the employer.

Telecommuting is a perk.

Intersting policies. I've reviewed several from organizations in my state (WA) and they require the employer to provide the broadband, the hardware, etc., not the employee.

With all the downsizing going on these days some employers are, in fact, requiring that employees telecommute rather than offering it as a perk for employees. This story presents one aspect of telecommuting. It would be interesting to hear more about the other side and whether any of the "rules" change.

I was intrigued that there was no mention of "reasonable accomodation" in reference to the ADA. I work at home, since the bulk of what I do is via email and telephone. It was actually MY requirement to take the position! Because of health issues, it's a lot easier for me to work from home, and I don't get dragged into all the interoffice stuff. I meet with my boss about once a week at the office, but we also do a lot by email/phone as well. It really works out great because of her busy schedule, and she knows she can call me late at night if she needs to.
Honestly, my home computer and office equipment is a lot better than what they would provide. I am a lot more productive being able to work in my housecoat and fuzzy slippers. LOL
I would not sign anything that would allow any employer the "right" to inspect. Unless they are willing to pay for any costs to "correct" things they find, they can keep their noses out of my home office! I'm saving my employer a huge amount of money via using my own equipment and space, and my computer security system is a lot bette than they are willing to provide. So for us, it's a definite win-win.

This looks like an agreement developed by lawyers with lots of extraneous whoo-ha. And it certainly does nothing to the 'can't approve it for everyone' issue. And doesn't protect you from anything, nor substitute for good employee-manager communication. (It looks and feels more punitive than anything else.)
Clearly certain positions are limited as to what degree that they have schedule or location flexibility, but typically those are hourly staff positions where position requirements are obvious in nature.
For over 20 years, I had a small consulting business and allowed management level employees (designers, writers, process consultants, editors, business development staff, programmers, etc) flexible work schedules with 'core hours' and/or 'core days.'
I never had any issues, nor did I need these rather horrid, micro-manage-y detailed agreements, other than ones related to confidential materials and that the flexible/telecommuting arrangements needed to be approved by their manager and me, the company owner. Whatever we agreed was put down in writing and reviewed/updated as needed.
Where it was useful for the business for computer use to be enabled at home, at our discretion and if needed, we provided any computers, specialty software licenses, additional internet services (at first, that was dial-up bulletin board client software...).
We did not 'inspect' the home tools, nor did we have any 'always on' instant messaging (kinda goes against one of the benefits of working at home) or phone return policy. If issues arose, those issues were addressed directly in a clear way. We never had any issues.

Thank you! As a nonprofit and small business consultant, I found the agreement to be an ode to micro management - not to mention intrusive and disrespectful.

I agreed with this position completely until one of our staff cut her finger at home and insisted on getting workers compensation because she said it happened while she was working at home. And a friend of mine who is also an ED said that one of her staff wanted them to buy her an ergonomic chair for her home.

Ask Rita responds:
I can see that the issue of telecommuting has struck a cord with many people - and it should. It essentially is bringing the rules of the workplace into what was typically considered a private area free from employer intrusion. However, when these two worlds meld, there can be conflict. Most employment policies, like the telecommuting agreement, are created to minimize and resolve conflict which occur, however infrequently. The fact that most telecommuting employees work professionally and compentently does not protect employers in those cases in which employees violate that trust and conduct themselves inapprorpiately.
For many small agencies, that level of trust with the telecommuting employee exists, and as mentioned by the commentors, there may be no need for a structured agreement. But as telecommuting becomes more prevelant at larger organizations, the level of control and detail in the telecommuting is recommended so that the employer can protect its interests and comply with the law. For example, I'm aware of employers having to deal with confidential client files being mishandled in employees homes, non-employees having access to the employer's data and servers, employees claiming workers' compensation injuries due to the poor ergonomic set up of their home offices, and of course, many issues with productivity. These issues won't vanish if there is a well drafted telecommuting agreement - but the employer will have any ability to address these issues with an agreement in place.
Lastly, I agree with the comments made earlier, that if the telecommuting arrangement is required by the employer, the employer is responible for the costs, if it is an accommodation requested by the employee, the employee would bear the costs of the home office - but not of regular expenses of doing business unrelated to the work location.

My non-profit, which employs 40 staff members, has had provisions for employee telecommuting and flex scheduling in our employee handbook for the past seven years. Access to telecommuting and flex-schedules is contingent on employee performance and job requirements. These benefits are highly valued by employees, and I believe they have contributed to employee morale, productivity and retention. Telecommuting is approved by supervisors and, to assure office coverage and internal communication, is typically limited to no more than one day out of each 2-week pay period. Some jobs are not eligible for or rarely use telecommuting because they require office presence. We have the provision to approve extended telecommuting (for example, when our finance director broke her ankle and couldn't drive to work). Employees who wish to work from home pay for their computers and internet access. Flex scheduling includes compressed work weeks and flex-schedules (employees come as early as 7:30 am and stay as late as 5:30 pm - our office hours are 8:30 - 4:30). Every team must have coverage during office hours. The teams figure out staff schedules within those parameters with their supervisor's approval. It's simple, empowers employees and it works. We've even had new parents bring their babies to work with them for 3 - 4 months (we've done it 4 times now). Co-workers loved this as much as the moms did. Much of our work is in an office environment making this arrangement possible.It's important to give supervisors support and training so these practices are available and implemented fairly across the agency. We pay employees less than they would earn in similar government and private sector jobs and we expect a great deal from them. The flexibility we allow is our edge in hiring and keeping good employees. They know we value them when we give them ways to balance their work and personal lives so they can excell in both spheresPeggy

I currently work from home one day per week. It allows me to save money on gas and to save time commuting back and forth to the office. I have a college student watch my toddler while I work. I get to share lunch with her and to be there in case she needs anything. I also work Tues-Sat so my child is in daycare just 3 days per week. This saves money and maximizes family time. It is worth a lot more than money to have this work arrangement and I actually get more done at home than in the office.
I am more than happy to use my own equipment at home. It is a reasonable trade off IMHO and I genuinely feel more committed to my work since my family needs are taken into consideration. I took my child to work from the age of 2months-9months and it worked out just fine. In fact, I worked harder and accomplished more because I REALLY wanted to make it work. I did not need a contract to ensure that I would do my job effectively. Mutual respect is the key to successful work from home situations.

I've been working from home for many years, and it's been a success, but difficult sometimes. It's hard for small children to understand that dad's home but he can't play because he's working. My company pays for half of my Internet connection cost, and half of my cell phone.
Robin, it's befitting that a environmental non-profit would try to avoid pollution due to commuting! I wish they all did that!
Bernard, Publisher at The Green Job Bank

My organization, an environmental NGO decided to go virtual in 2002. We made this decision to save money and reduce our load on the environment. Certainly I have experienced some benefits to this but so has my organization. The company provides my computer and business phone line and they pay half of my internet connection. My colleagues and I don't have some kind of special contract stating how we must work from home only that we are accessible during our office hours. Though sometimes I take a longer lunch or an afternoon nap, I find I often work harder working from home because I work when I'm sick, I work into the evening or I start work early depending upon whatever deadline I have coming up. In addition, I am not distracted by water-cooler conversation or people coming into my office to chat which is what used to happen in when I used to work out of an office. For our organization, telecommuting is a winner. Sarah, Manager at the Recycling Council of Ontario (www.rco.on.ca).

Sarah, I'm in the same situation. I end up working a lot more, and with a very flexible schedule. But I miss the water-cooler conversations!!! Some of the best conversations I've had with co-workers were water-cooler cooler conversations. In an informal setting, some people open up more. Also the social aspects are missing...So, yes, I love working from home for the flexibility and the time and gas savings, but I miss the socializing.Bernard, Publisher at The Green Job Bank

Can you comment on Executive Directors specifically requesting work-from-home for a portion of their work week? What do you see as pros/cons/items to consider that may differ from what you have above?

Employers who write about teleworking always talk about teleworking as a benefit to the employee, but fail to discuss the cost benefit to the employer. For example, about 25% of IBM's 320,000 workers worldwide telecommute from home offices, saving $700 million in real estate costs. (Source: Canadian Telework Association).

Additionally, employers often discuss how to monitor teleworker productivity while failing to acknowledge basic management review processes. Teleworking is a valid work model for which management by objectives processes work very well. If objectives are clearly defined, then it does not matter where the employee performs the work activity. Unfortunately there is still some corporate stereotyping that workers are inherently lazy or untrustworthy. There are plenty of telework studies that refute this teleworker productivity myth.

I have been successfully teleworking for more than ten years for a large corporation, in an international role.

Part of the problem with the whole "telecommuter" discussion is that the discussion itself often sidesteps or distorts issues of social convention.

The eight-hour work day is an artifact that is not relevant to most knowledge workers. I write marketing materials. It is not unusual for a simple brochure to flow out of me in an hour or two. It is also not unusual for my brain to jam, causing an identical brochure project to take me all day. I prefer to be paid for the brochure, in the knowledge that I can't predict which days I'll be slaving away at midnight or when I'll get a windfall of time. One of the PRIMARY reasons I enjoy working at home is to get out from under having to account for how I spend time rather than what I get done and at what quality.

Flex scheduling misses the point, as well. If I have small children, what makes my life easier is having the discretion to take the afternoon off the day I need to make 100 cupcakes and also have downtime, not necessarily to come in every day at 10 instead of 8.

What's in play as work arrangements change is not "productivity." It's the part of the social atmosphere in the office that relies upon captivity.

I'm a non-exempt employee who works from home full time. If my internet connection goes down, do I get paid for the down time, even if it's 6 hours?

Does anyone use web based membership data base called yourmembership.com?
How do you like it?

Post new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.