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Millennial Minded

Set rules can smooth the path for telecommuters — and their bosses

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More than 4 percent of New Jersey employees telecommute — with that number only rising with the millennial generation.

And as one of the Top 10 states for working from home, New Jersey has helped make the benefits of telecommuting astoundingly clear: increased flexibility and productivity, and reduced stress and costs.

While that’s all well and good, Rosemary Gousman — managing partner at Fisher & Phillips, an employment law firm in Murray Hill — knows firsthand how important it is for employers to carefully consider the variables and risks at hand before offering this benefit to their employees.

For example, did you know that if an employee injures himself while working at home, his employer may be held liable?

“Under OSHA law, employers have a duty to protect their employees whether or not they are on their worksite,” Gousman said. “If there is an accident while they are working, employers could be subject to questioning.”

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There are, however, procedures and policies that can be put in place by employers to protect themselves against such issues.

For example, employers have the right to help telecommuting employees select, inspect and set up a personal work space that is as ergonomically correct and safe as the office. That means not only is it well-lit, ventilated and free of clutter, but also has access to multiple electrical outlets.

In addition, agreements may be made as to which work items will be purchased and maintained by the employee and which will be provided and insured by the employer with the understanding that all employer-owned equipment and records are to be used for job purposes only.

This is all in an effort to not only improve the employee’s safety, but also protect the privacy and integrity of company data. Employers should therefore consider issuing telecommuting employees computers while making sure that any alternate work sites have private and secure access to the Internet.

While this would make the employee’s home seem like the most viable option, there may be times where an in-home work environment will not be suitable. 

“As much as an employee may want to telecommute because of child care issues, working at home is not designed to replace child care,” Gousman said. “Employers need to make that clear to employees as part of a telecommuting agreement. Schedules may of course be modified, but if you’re working from home, you’re supposed to be doing job-related work.”

Some employers may even go so far as to specify that children, family members and/or pets are not allowed into their employee’s workspace during the day.

Yes — all in a formal, written agreement.

The written word is still the best way to keep employees productive and honest when completing work from alternate sites on a regular basis.

“You want to make sure that the employee is accessible even if they are at home,” Gousman said.

A formal, in-print agreement not only gives employers the ability to specify and ensure all of the above, but also allows them to detail the specific days and hours that an employee is expected to be in the office and/or at specified alternate works sites, as well as which methods will be used to communicate throughout the day.

Finally, employers should address overtime restrictions for their non-exempt, telecommuting employees. Gousman suggested that any additional hours be approved prior to by a supervisor and to install and require that employees use time-tracking programs.

“It’s then suggested to have a trial period to see if the arrangement fits both the employee and the job,” Gousman said.

When it works, it can really work.

Take, for example, the federal government. President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010 for federal employees to establish policies for working outside their offices. Not only did he require all agencies to provide interactive telework training to eligible employees and managers, but also he directed each agency to designate a Telework Managing Officer.

Since then, telecommuting has helped to enhance employees’ work/life balances; better leverage technology; recruit and retain federal workers; and improved the ability of the federal government to maintain continuity of operations during incidents and emergencies.

“If someone is a good, self-motivated employee and the job lends itself to telecommuting, generally, there aren’t any issues,” Gousman said.


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Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@njbiz.com

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