Obscure Workers, Clear Exposures: Managing the Risks of a Telecommuting Workforce
When an employee is injured at the workplace, it’s typically a pretty straightforward workers’ compensation claim. But what if the office is at home? More people than ever are telecommuting. And while this trend can benefit both companies and employees, it can also complicate workplace injury claims.
Working from home is no longer a rare occurrence. In fact, close to a quarter of employees work from home on an average workday, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the world becomes more connected, it is expected that telecommuting will increase as both employers and employees recognize the benefits of telecommuting arrangements.
But when employees are not working from a company’s own premises, employers generally have the same exposure to liability from work-related accidents as they would if the employee was working on site. And they face additional challenges that do not apply to non-telecommuting workforces, including a lack of oversight on employees’ work environments. How can managers be sure that employees are working? Is company-provided equipment being used correctly? Does a worker’s home present additional risks? And is an at-home work environment too distracting?
A second challenge is that telecommuting blurs the lines between working and nonworking hours. Are employees working the agreed-upon number of hours? Does the lack of distinction between working and nonworking hours lead to reduced productivity?
A telecommuting arrangement can also increase the potential for fraudulent claims. When a worker is injured on a company’s premises, there is a good chance that the injury is either witnessed by other employees or caught on camera, allowing employers to better determine whether that injury took place in the course and scope of work. But because telecommuters work off site, and often work alone, there is generally a lack of witnesses. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to disprove that an injury happened in the course or scope of employment.
Navigating the Telecommuting Landscape
Repetitive stress injuries, slips and falls, and mental health issues are the most common claims by telecommuters. Fortunately, there are steps that organizations can take to reduce exposures that arise from telecommuting.
Most importantly, companies with a work-at-home workforce should establish clear telecommuting policies. This starts by defining who is designated as a telecommuter — for example, by determining a minimum percentage of time that needs to be worked from a home office. A telecommuting policy should include:
- Eligibility criteria. Clearly outline who qualifies to work remotely and make clear that an option to telecommute may be withdrawn at any time. In cases where the opportunity to work remotely is not being offered to all employees, explain the rationale behind this decision.
- Work hours and productivity expectations. Define the working hours of telecommuting employees, especially if they have a flexible schedule, and outline productivity expectations, clarifying how their output will be monitored.
- Specific guidelines for work-at-home arrangements. Clarify whether any particular work arrangements are required — for example, whether telecommuters need to have a designated work area that is separate from their living space, uninterrupted access to high-speed internet, work delivery schedules, hours of guaranteed availability, and performance evaluation criteria. These guidelines and policies must be monitored regularly and reviewed as necessary.
- Required security standards. Especially in cases where employees are in possession of confidential consumer data, the policy should outline the requirements for securing company equipment and information, including banning employees from working in public areas, like coffee shops or shared workspaces.
The above, together with other expectations, should be discussed with employees as early as the interview and onboarding process — or, for employees who started as in-office workers, as soon as a telecommuting arrangement commences. Managers or human resources personnel should underline that although telecommuting workers are off site and may work different hours, they are responsible for adhering to company expectations when it comes to their job performance.
It is also imperative that managers themselves receive training and become familiar with the company’s telecommuting policy, the process for formally approving and implementing all telecommuting arrangements, and how to manage remote workers.