The ability to telecommute, whether full time or on occasion, has become an increasingly common workplace perk. In fact, the New York Times reported that 43 percent of employed Americans spend at least some time working remotely.
The option to work outside the office is a dream come true for employees who want better work-life balance. But without guidelines, managing remote employees can quickly become a boss's worst nightmare.
"Allowing people to work from home … attracts and retains top talent in a competitive market," said Brian Shapland, general manager of office furniture company turnstone. "But there are factors to consider when giving your team the green light to work outside the office, like the impact it may have on employee engagement, team connectivity and the vibrancy of your office culture."
As your company grows, it's a good idea to put a formal telecommuting program in place to help you keep track of employees who work remotely and ensure everyone is performing at their peak, regardless of location.
Experts shared five important issues to keep in mind when crafting your official policy. [See Related Story: No Face Time? No Problem: How to Keep Virtual Workers Engaged]
The first thing any employer needs to consider when deciding on a remote work policy is whether the employees' attitudes, work ethics and personalities align with the company's expectations of telecommuting. Being able to work from home sounds like a nice companywide perk in theory, but not everyone can be productive when the boss isn't down the hall to check up on them.
"Managers should accommodate on a case-by-case basis to do what's best for the company, its team members and the project at hand," said Phil Shawe, co-founder and co-CEO of translation technology company TransPerfect.
Kim Davis, executive vice president and chief HR officer at benefits broker NFP, advised setting eligibility guidelines. These can include the nature of the position, how long a person has been at the company/in the role, past job performance and how frequently a staff member can telecommute (full time, once a week, once a month, etc.).
2. Expectations for work hours
For geographically dispersed teams, or in cases where remote work helps accommodate for family schedules and obligations, official "business hours" may vary from person to person. Employers need to trust their telecommuters and give them the freedom to do their jobs in a way that works for them. However, regardless of their work hours, employees also need to be held accountable for their assigned jobs by adhering to company expectations.
"Set clear expectations with employees," Shapland told Business News Daily. "Remote workers should be available during office hours, must meet deadlines and complete projects with excellence and maintain communication with their manager and co-workers. Workers who do not meet these expectations risk losing the trust of leadership and sidelining their team."
"It is important to provide very specific guidelines and policies for employees to review and acknowledge [regarding] the telecommuting arrangement," Davis added. "A quiet and private work space is still needed [in the home], and work hours require full attention and dedication — no watching the kids while trying to work."
3. Equipment and cybersecurity
An often-overlooked element of remote work is the security of the corporate data workers are accessing outside of the secure office network. Hunter Hoffmann, head of U.S. communications at small business insurer Hiscox, recommended keeping a close eye on the devices and programs employees use when they work from home, and setting up safeguards against any potential hacks or breaches.
"Enabling employees to work remotely opens up the likelihood that they'll use their work devices to communicate via unsecured public networks," Hoffmann said. "Password-protect all business devices [and] make sure that data going out from [those devices] is encrypted. Keep a current inventory of all devices and make sure each one has its GPS tracking turned on. Additionally, install technology to remotely wipe data from any device that has been lost or stolen."
Davis noted that if company-issued devices are taken home for remote work, employees should be aware that the equipment and any programs on them are to be used only for work-related purposes.
4. Communication methods
In many offices, instant messaging and chat services have become the communication method of choice due to their ease-of-use and convenience. It makes sense to have the whole team connect with each other through these platforms for quick discussions and collaboration, but employees who aren't physically there need the benefits of face time, like their in-office colleagues have. Therefore, frequent phone calls and video conferences should be part of your routine with remote workers to ensure that nothing gets lost in translation via text-based communication.
With the appropriate use of communications technology, companies can also ensure their culture remains intact, even with full-time telecommuters. As a full-time telecommuter, Reid Travis, director of marketing at Pancheros Mexican Grill, said that video-integrated chat programs like Google Hangouts have been a lifeline for his company's culture. Sharing photos of office events, setting up a dedicated "fun talk" chat and having remote team members participate in chats and meetings have all helped to make the staff feel more connected.
"It's easy to feel disengaged and no longer included [as a telecommuter]," Travis said. "Make sure the person still feels like part of the team — it feeds your overall productivity [and makes] you feel like you're making strides and impacts, even from far away."
5. Policy abuse
Although you hope that your employees will be respectful and accountable when taking advantage of your remote work policy, there are, unfortunately, some people who may end up abusing it. It's wise to explicitly state that remote work is a privilege that can be revoked if it's discovered that an employee is not meeting his or her expectations while working outside the office.
You can eliminate any abuse of work-from-home policies by measuring at both the individual and team levels, holding everyone accountable for their results, said Shawe.
"It is management's job to set tough, yet achievable goals ... for each employee, regardless of where they sit around the globe," he told Business News Daily. "If [your] internal systems ... measure relevant information, and transform that information into appropriate, digestible, and shared performance metrics, the business and its staff will thrive whether operating in real world, or in the virtual world."
Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.