The idea of some employees working off-site dates at least from the time when traveling salesmen criss-crossed the country. At the time, it simply wasn’t possible to do all that much over the phone. Eventually, though, fax machines were invented, followed by modems that could operate at 300 bits per second (in other words, transmitting this article would take almost three minutes), then computers became affordable and finally portable.
Today, it’s possible for everyone from architects to marketing strategists to complete entire projects without ever once meeting their clients face to face or even hearing their voice. Technological improvements have heterodyned with changing social attitudes to change the job landscape completely: over a third of American workers consider themselves freelancers to some extent. Those in traditional employment with formal or informal telecommuting arrangements raise the proportion of off-site workers even further.
The Benefits of Remote Workers
Whether they realize it or not, time spent physically commuting represents a kind of loss to both employer and employee. Driving is no less stressful than sitting at a desk and takes up time that is neither worked in nor paid for.
At the same time, modern workers are more concerned than before about their work/life balance and carbon footprint. They’d prefer to spend more time around their children, schedule breaks when they feel the need and take advantage of social opportunities in the middle of the day. More importantly, it’s only possible to make the best cup of Joe at home where you’re not required to humor decaf lovers.
For employers, allowing remote work allows them to externalize numerous overhead expenses they would otherwise be required to bear. It’s much cheaper to accommodate a worker for meetings once or twice a week than to rent extra office space. However, this does not mean that the legal and HR burden is necessarily any less with remote workers.
Freelancers Versus Off-Site Employees
A freelancer is an independent contractor much like an office cleaning service or retained lawyer. This simply means that they perform defined tasks for monetary compensation. This sum is invoiced normally and doesn’t include items like Social Security payments, nor is income tax withheld by the “employer”. Workplace headaches like harassment and discrimination normally don’t apply, and either party may terminate the contract within the terms thereof.
A remote worker, by contrast, is an ordinary employee who spends some or most of their time working from home. The location from where they fulfill their function is largely irrelevant; all the usual legislation applies. This leads to some particular challenges for human resources professionals.
Supervision, Productivity and Overtime Pay
In principle, only employees who’ve demonstrated responsibility, dedication and trustworthiness will be allowed to telecommute. Even so, most managers will insist on at least some oversight on how they spend their time, while HR will be concerned that they’re not being paid overtime for watching cat videos.
The simplest solution to this problem is to require remote workers to install monitoring software that periodically sends screenshots to the office. These may be reviewed for non-work related activity in case of a dispute, while just the possibility of being called out will make remote employees less likely to do personal tasks without clocking out.
Are remote workers eligible for workman’s compensation if injured on the job? The short answer, fortunately or unfortunately, is “yes”.
The OSH act was passed in 1970, before telecommuting became popular, and still requires employers to provide employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers. Therefore, even though a remote employee’s workspace is not under the company’s control, it remains responsible for its safety.
This ridiculous situation has prompted many companies to insert a clause into remote workers’ contracts stating that the employee is required to maintain their working area according to OSHA guidelines. They may even be required to provide evidence or a written statement that they have done so.
Telecommuting and Company Policies
The governing principle for remote workers is that all normal company policies apply where appropriate, but it often makes sense to reinforce this idea with a written, signed document. This may require the employee to be available telephonically during working hours, adhere to all cybersecurity measures and generally behave in a professional manner.
Particularly where a worker uses their own computer, ensuring compliance with company rules will often have to be reconciled with the employee’s right to privacy. Any company implementing remote working for the first time is likely to find it difficult to strike this balance, as there is as yet no real set of best practices. Most find, luckily, that emphasizing that the privilege to work at home is on sufferance and can be revoked at any time is all that’s needed to motivate off-site workers to remain productive and professional.