Telework: A few things you need to know before taking the plunge

Friday, February 19, 2016

Thanks to the Internet and advances in telecommunications, the number of teleworkers in the services sector has increased significantly over the past 40 years or so. More and more companies are giving their employees the option of teleworking (also referred to as “telecommuting”). Whether employees work from home once in a while or on a regular basis, there are lots of advantages for employers: it lowers infrastructure costs, increases productivity, reduces absenteeism, curbs the spread of infectious diseases in the workplace, and accommodates employees with disabilities so they can stay on the job. There are also a number of benefits for employees: it saves on the time and cost of commuting, saves on clothing costs, allows for more flexible schedules and a better work-life balance, and provides access to jobs for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. And it’s eco-friendly! By reducing the number of vehicles on the road, telework also helps reduce our carbon footprint!

However, telework is not without a few drawbacks for both employers and employees. Employers may have difficulty supervising an employee’s work when they’re not in the office. Sensitive information could inadvertently be leaked or the employee could be at risk for a disability due to poor workstation ergonomics. Teleworkers can feel isolated, have trouble separating work from their personal life or find it stressful to deal with family distractions. They may work long hours and be less aware of what’s going on in the company. They may also feel that they’re not getting enough coaching or that they’re missing out on opportunities to get ahead because they work from home.

Nonetheless, the benefits of teleworking far outweigh the drawbacks. To succeed, it’s important to have a clear policy that outlines the practical and legal aspects of teleworking.

Important points to consider in a telework policy

There are a number of things you need to consider before implementing a telework arrangement or policy, such as legal considerations, confidentiality, safety, workplace ergonomics, and managing employees’ work.

Legal considerations

Canadian occupational health and safety laws don’t cover telework arrangements per se,1 and legislation varies from one province to another. It’s best to contact the local government department in charge of occupational health and safety for more details about any applicable laws.

According to Daniel Leduc, a speaker and lawyer specializing in employment and labour law, it’s in every company’s best interests to have a telework policy that will prevent any negative legal repercussions.2 The policy should include objective criteria, so that if you choose to deny an employee’s request to work from home, you won’t be vulnerable to charges of discrimination.3 You also want to make sure you can end a telework arrangement in case your business needs change. This way, your relationship with your employee will be protected and you won’t be accused of constructive dismissal if your employee doesn’t want to start working in the office again.4

Confidentiality

Could phone calls or emails handled by teleworkers outside company walls fall into the wrong hands or be intercepted by the competition? Do your teleworkers need to follow any specific security protocols when accessing your company’s computer network or sending confidential documents?

Employee and equipment safety

Employers have to make sure a teleworker is as safe at home as they would be at work.1 If a teleworker doesn’t have their computer equipment set up properly or have the right office equipment, they could end up with musculoskeletal problems. It’s important to share tips on how to ensure an ergonomically-friendly workstation with your teleworkers.

Managing teleworkers

It’s important to talk to your teleworkers about what they can and can’t do remotely. Will they be working from home occasionally, once a week, once a month or full-time? Will they be able to work flexible hours or would you prefer a set schedule? Do they need to keep track of how long they spend on each task? What types of jobs would be eligible for telework? What computer equipment would you supply? Would you have to ensure they have access to a secure Internet connection or technical support? How often do you want teleworkers to get in touch with their co-workers and how should they do this? Do they need to come in to the office for meetings? What would you do to build employee loyalty and make sure teleworkers don’t feel left out?

You may think this is a lot to consider, but having a telework policy that clearly outlines everyone’s responsibilities can help employers benefit from the increased productivity that comes with telework, while avoiding disagreements and legal pitfalls.

Testing the waters

If you think teleworking may be the way to go, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety suggests trying it for a set period of time, and then assessing how it went based on criteria such as deadlines met, productivity, availability, etc. This way you can make changes to the arrangement or go back to the way things were if it doesn’t work out.

1. CANADIAN CENTRE FOR OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY, Telework/Telecommuting, OSH Answers Fact Sheets  External link. Opens in a new window., updated September 12, 2014.

2. LEDUC, Daniel. Les enjeux juridiques du télétravail  External link. Opens in a new window., Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés, La Presse, December 13, 2003.

3. STAM, Lisa. Working from Home: Legal Issues for Employers  External link. Opens in a new window., WorkPlace Policies, September 25, 2012.

4. Idem