The Risks & Liabilities of Telecommuting

The Risks & Liabilities of Telecommuting

Telecommuting Employee Working from HomeThere’s been a lot of discussion in the news lately about telecommuting.  Often, these conversations focus on issues of productivity and management — the benefits and cost-savings of telecommuting, and the challenges of guiding the workflow of remote employees.

However, telecommuting has other aspects that deserve attention, chief among them issues of risk and liability, which employers often don’t take into consideration until it’s too late!

Telecommuting & unsafe working conditions:

A recent case, Sandberg v. JC Penney Co., vividly highlights telecommuting’s inherent safety issues:

A woman who primarily worked out of her home as a custom decorator and saleswoman of bedding and window treatments claimed that when she went into her garage to retrieve some fabric samples, she tripped over her dog and fractured her wrist.

She argued that because she was required by her employer to work out of her home, hazards within her home automatically qualified as work environment hazards. 

Initially, a Workers’ Compensation Board in Oregon denied her claim for workers’ compensation benefits, but this ruling was reversed by an appeals court.  Now that her case has been sent back to the Workers’ Compensation Board, it appears she has a strong chance of winning.

How to create safe telecommuting work conditions:

Some of the benefits of allowing employees to telecommute lose their appeal when weighed against the fact that employers lack the control over employees’ environments and activities that they have when people work in-office.

Here are some steps you can take to ensure that remote employees’ working conditions are safe:

  • The employee’s home work space must be located in a safe, clean, controlled environment.
  • You should be directly involved in selecting the space where a telecommuting employee will work, and in setting up that area so it is as ergonomically correct and safe as your normal office space.
  • It should be well-lit and ventilated, large enough to comfortably accommodate your employee and any equipment they will be using, and free of clutter and physical obstructions.
  • It should have enough electrical outlets to safely power all of the equipment they need to work, and all wires and electrical cords must be kept secured and out of the way.
  • Once the workspace has been set up, thoroughly document it with photos.

It is clear that risk management is an extremely important element of any successful telework set-up.  Telecommuting truly is an excellent option for companies and their employees, but only if a business takes the proper steps to protect itself.

Protect your company with detailed telecommuting policies:

As with almost all employment-related issues, clear policies and guidelines are your best protection.

You must have a detailed and very clear outline of your expectations for telecommuting employees, and guidelines that address any potential safety issues, all in writing

  • Employees who work from home should be required to sign these documents to indicate that they understand and will follow your safety and security requirements.
  • This agreement should state that home workers will be covered by workers’ compensation laws only if they are injured during the course of performing their job duties.
  • Periodically reassess your telecommuting employees’ work spaces (and document your assessments, preferably with photos) to ensure that they continue to meet your safety requirements.
  • If you allow hourly workers to telecommute, make sure you have a time-tracking program in place that they must log into while working, to prevent fraudulent overtime and hours claims.

Some companies go so far as to make telecommuting employees sign an agreement that they will not allow children, family members, and pets in their home workspace.  Creating a policy of this type is a very good idea, as it further reduces risk of injury, as well as security risks — which we’ll address next.

The security risks of telecommuting:

Technological security risks are a major concern when you allow an employee to work outside of your normal office space.  Protecting the privacy and integrity of company data and networks is a high priority when employees are working outside of the office.

Your company should always have a detailed acceptable use policy regarding the use of computers, company data, and online media, whether or not you have employees who work from home.  If you do have remote workers, this becomes even more important. 

  • Your staff needs to sign an acceptable use policy, and the policy should be updated annually, or whenever you implement new technology, or new ways of using technology.
  • You should provide telecommuting employees with company-issued equipment, rather than having them use their own computers or personal technology for work.
  • Have an IT expert ensure that remote employees’ networks are properly secured, and their machines are protected by firewalls, antivirus software, failed log-on lockout settings, etc.
  • If your company blocks employees from accessing certain sites from work, block those sites on your telecommuting employees’ work machines too.
  • Telecommuting employees should not be given administrator privileges on their work computers, to prevent them from installing non-work related programs or otherwise harm their machines.  Instead, have your IT staff remotely handle updates or changes.

If you’re providing employees with laptops, you may also want your policy to prohibit the use of that equipment in unsecured environments, such as wireless networks available at public locations like coffee shops (unless this interferes with the work they need to perform).

Only let trusted employees telecommute:

If possible, it’s best to only allow employees you know well, and who have an established history at your company, to work from home.

After all, trust is a huge component of any telecommuting set-up!  You must trust your employee to maintain a safe office environment, to complete tasks unsupervised, and to accurately report their hours.

While there are obviously measures you can take to ensure that these things happen, you’ll protect yourself from potential fraud or other problems if you only offer this privilege to staff who’ve proven you can rely on them.

It’s not uncommon for companies to offer a telework option only to long-term or high-performing employees.  Keep in mind, though, that if this is the case, due to the Americans with Disabilities Act, you may have to provide this option to workers who do not meet the long-term/high-performing criteria, if they are disabled and request accommodation. 

The wrap-up:

According to data released by the Nemertes Research Group in 2009, as many as 71% of U.S. companies offer full-time or part-time telecommuting options to their employees.  As the pressure of an uncertain and struggling economy continues to bear down on us for the foreseeable future, the flexibility and cost-savings offered by telecommuting will ensure it remains an appealing option for businesses to pursue.

My own experiences with providing work-from-home arrangements in my company were all extremely positive.  But part of the reason that was the case is that we made sure to implement all of the measures necessary to protect ourselves and ensure the safety of our employees and data.  The chances are high that if you do the same, you’ll enjoy an equally positive experience!

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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