Like their for-profit counterparts, nonprofits are increasingly allowing employees to telecommute. Done right, work-at-home arrangements, either full time or on an occasional basis, can pay off for both employers and employees, but you’ll need to be proactive to avoid some potential pitfalls.
The bevy of benefits
The advantages of telecommuting for you and your employees are plentiful, starting with cost containment. An employee who doesn’t need to go into the office spends less money on things like commuting, work clothes, dry cleaning or going out to lunch. And the organization might be able to downsize its space needs, resulting in rent and other overhead savings.
You’ll also likely enjoy reduced recruiting and retention expenses, by landing top candidates regardless of where they might live. And telecommuting tends to boost employee morale and satisfaction, which reduces turnover.
You may see productivity climb, too. Some employers worry about telecommuters slacking off, but research suggests the opposite is true. A 2013 Gallup poll found that remote workers log an average of four more work hours every week than their in-office colleagues. The pollster also reports that slightly more telecommuters (32%) are engaged by their work than on-site employees (28%).
The essential elements
Effective telecommuting arrangements require careful planning and management. You’ll need to consider several issues in particular.
Policy. Take the time to develop the necessary policy with a team of human resources staff, managers and employees. You’ll need your policy to address — among other things — eligibility, home office requirements and who will provide necessary equipment and supplies, training (for both telecommuters and their supervisors), communication, work hours, performance/evaluation, and technology security. Employees approved for telecommuting should sign an annual agreement acknowledging the policy and expectations, and that the policy will be enforced.
Plan on reviewing and updating your policy regularly. It needs to stay current with the demands of your organization, your workforce and relevant industry standards. For instance, IT threats and safeguards evolve rapidly, and your security protocols for telecommuters should keep pace.
Communications. It’s generally more challenging to effectively communicate with telecommuters. Both managers and employees must be proactive in their communications. You might find it helpful to establish standards for how promptly employees should respond to email or other communications, the times when managers or employees will be available and similar matters.
Employees who aren’t in the office can feel isolated and disconnected. Moreover, they miss out on a lot of the information that spreads through the workplace. To help make up for that, managers should have regular one-on-ones, whether by phone or video conference, with telecommuters. Weekly team meetings also might be helpful. Including some time for “water cooler talk” in these sessions can build relationships and rapport.
Inclusion. You’ll also probably need to be more proactive about making telecommuters feel like part of the team than would be necessary for on-site employees. You may want to have managers hold regular team meetings with remote workers looped in by video. This can make it easier for co-workers to bond than if they communicate only online or by phone. In addition, telecommuters should be invited to company events, and added to communications such as birthday lists.
Resentment can develop if employees consigned to the office question whether their telecommuting colleagues are truly pulling their weight. It’s not unusual for an “us vs. them” mentality to develop.
Managers can keep a lid on ill will by using team meetings to publicly praise telecommuters and explicitly acknowledge when they are contributing to the organization to avoid the perception that they are just “goofing off.” Between meetings, managers can send emails recognizing telecommuters’ work and copy co-workers.
Proceed with caution
When first dipping your toes in the telecommuting waters, you’d be wise to seek legal advice. Telecommuting puts a twist on a range of compliance, from confidentiality to wage and hour laws, and raises critical questions related to use (and return) of company property.
Sidebar: Picking the right people and positions
Not every employee or job is well suited for telecommuting. Telecommuting opportunities should be restricted to employees with strong communication, organizational and time-management skills. Look, too, for employees who have a proven record of working well independently. Ask them how they maintain their focus, monitor their progress toward goals and keep themselves on track.
When designating positions for telecommuting, don’t base your decisions on factors like tenure or performance but on the nature of the job — certain duties are just more appropriate for remote work. Data processing, research and publications-related jobs don’t necessarily require employees to be in the office. But positions that involve extensive interpersonal interaction (for example, case or volunteer managers) make poor candidates for telecommuting.
And remember that telecommuting workers often don’t work typical business hours (unless you spell that out in your policy). You can require them to be available during certain hours, but if a position isn’t one where the employee can get it done working flexible hours, it may be a poor choice for telecommuting.