9 hidden risks of telecommuting policies

As the boundaries of the enterprise shift, IT’s ability to support and protect remote work environments must shift correspondingly. Here’s how to develop a comprehensive telecommuting policy to mitigate potential liabilities.

Bart Perkins Mar 16th 2018 A-A+

Telecommuting has become well accepted in many industries with large numbers of people regularly working remotely and rarely traveling to the office. This shift is in large part fueled by the evolution of collaboration and communication tools that are facilitating remote work, improving the telecommuting experience for both employees and employers.

Telecommuting employees have more schedule flexibility, lower commuting costs, and reduced travel time. Improved communication tools allow managers or other individuals who travel regularly as part of the job to provide direction, approve actions, and make decisions while away from their regular office.

Employers benefit as well; office space costs are lower, employee satisfaction is higher, and the enterprise’s carbon footprint is reduced.

Unfortunately, telecommuting can create unexpected liabilities for both small employers and large enterprises. Until the courts determine how to apportion liability for telecommuting issues, the waters are murky. Don’t wait; create policies for the following situations.

Injuries

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), businesses need to provide employees with a safe work environment. Home-based employees are entitled to the same workers’ compensation benefits as office workers. In Sandberg v. JC Penney (2011), an employee who had fabric samples stored in her garage tripped over her dog while retrieving some samples. She was awarded workers’ compensation because the court determined that she was working for her employer when she was injured. The Court also found that she worked from home at her employer’s request and not just for her own convenience. Given the Sandberg case, it is not hard to imagine that an employer could be held liable for injuries sustained by customers or other employees who meet with a telecommuter in a home office.

Before employees begin telecommuting, require them to complete a home safety survey. Require adequate lighting, ventilation, fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, along with an ergonomic chair and desk. Ensure exposed extension cords, phone lines, or other hazards are remediated. If possible, require the employee to designate a separate room for exclusive use as an office. Document the workspace with pictures and a video. Finally, make sure the home owner’s or renter’s insurance policy is current. Update the safety survey at least annually.

Damaged equipment

Business insurance should cover cellphones, tablets, laptops, and other equipment that normally accompanies an employee throughout the day. Other office equipment can be tricky. Damage claims for desktop computers, copiers, and other office equipment that is not portable may be denied unless the work space is specifically designated as an office. Check your business insurance and the telecommuter’s insurance to determine which equipment is covered and under what circumstances. Obtain office equipment riders as necessary.

Cyber security

As networks become larger and more complex they become more difficult to secure. Unfortunately, few individuals are as careful as IT security professionals. When security is not part of an employee’s job, it is easy to miss patches, inadvertently disable a firewall, or fail to encrypt documents. Even security-savvy professionals can miss baby monitors, smart appliances, and other IoT devices that can be entry points for hackers.

While many employees prefer to use a single set of devices for both personal and professional use, BYOD environments are more difficult to defend. To maintain a high level of security, have IT provision and maintain the authenticity of all devices that connect to the network. Even if your organization’s culture will not tolerate this level of control, standardize as many security tools as possible, including anti-virus, firewall, encryption, patch management, multi-factor authentication, and so on.

Enterprises, particularly small ones that have not yet created a security program, can find a great deal of information at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Physical security

Ideally the home office should be locked when the telecommuter is not working. Paper documents should be protected from fire or theft in a fireproof safe or filing cabinet. The entire house should be protected with a monitored security system. Other adults and children living in the house should be prohibited from accessing or using the office equipment, particularly when the telecommuter is not home. Establish home office physical security standards and evaluate each telecommuter’s workspace against those standards.

Local zoning or association rules

Some condos, co-ops, townships, or homeowners’ associations limit or prohibit home-based businesses. Generally, there are no restrictions on an individual working alone in an office. However, issues can arise if customers or co-workers regularly visit the telecommuter or if the employee has to assemble equipment in the home. Check local rules carefully for restrictions on property use and for potential business taxes.

Inappropriate communications

Telecommuters typically interact with fewer individuals than office workers with similar jobs. Over time, many telecommuters feel they know the people with whom they communicate well enough to drop formalities. It is easy for telecommuters’ communications to become sloppy since their primary communication vehicles — email, text, and collaboration tools — promote informality. Telecommuters need to be reminded that all electronic communications sent and received as part of doing business, will be treated as official documentation in any legal dispute. Telecommuters should be trained not to use sexual innuendos, or make any libelous, slanderous, racist, or other off-color comments. In addition, they need to avoid using “certify,” “promise,” “guarantee,” or other words that could create legal obligations for the enterprise.

Harassment

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires enterprises to ensure that employees do not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex, age, and so on. Unwanted sexual advances, ethnic slurs, or bullying can be considered harassment that results in fines and other penalties. While harassment is highly unlikely when telecommuters work alone at home, it is possible. Opportunities for harassment increase if two employees decide to work in one employee’s home office. While harassment is still unlikely, it is prudent to get both employees to document that the shared office is for their convenience and is not an employer requirement.

Long haul truckers are an extreme example of potential remote workplace harassment. The truck cab is a work environment with one person driving while the other sleeps. To address the shortage of licensed drivers, some trucking companies operate driver schools. Unless two drivers request each other, upon graduation drivers are paired randomly. EEOC rules prevent the company from pairing female drivers only with other females or from pairing minorities only with someone else from the same minority. Any suggestion of harassment is taken very seriously by trucking company HR staff.

Don’t skip workplace training for telecommuters just because they appear to have fewer opportunities to harass or be harassed by other employees. Include them in all training and require them to sign all workplace policies.

Software licensing

Improperly licensed or pirated software can result in large fines for employers. The Business Software Alliance attempts to stop copyright infringement and make sure that all software is properly licensed. If a computer used for business purposes contains improperly licensed software, even if that software is not used in the course of the employee’s job, the company may still be liable. Even if the enterprise is not at fault, management will waste a lot of time defending the enterprise.

Staff cohesion

Most humans are social beings who seek a feeling of community in both their personal and professional lives. Most humans prefer to be part of a team that is working to achieve some shared goal.

Although collaboration tools are improving dramatically, they still lack the intimacy of real life interactions. According to Albert Mehrabian, UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology, information is communicated through words, tone of voice, and body language. Telecommuters lose some communications subtleties. Even the best video conferencing or augmented reality tools do not convey voice tone or body language nearly as well as face to face communications.

In the absence of a specific program to include telecommuters in enterprise activities, they can be overlooked and begin to feel like second-class citizens. Service firms providing on-site desktop support, project management, or other services requiring long-term assignments in customer offices, regularly encounter this problem. Remote employees can “go native,” shifting their loyalties to the customer.

Improve staff cohesion by making it clear that remote workers are an important part of the team. Make communications, particularly with management, more personal by periodically using the phone or a video instead of always relying on email and text. Periodically bring remote workers to the office even if a plane ride is required. Visit remote workers in the field. Create a buddy program to link telecommuters from different parts of the enterprise. Use video conferencing for department meetings and encourage telecommuters to join. And if layoffs become necessary, don’t use email or text. While many people will be angry, they will appreciate a personal call.

As the boundaries of the enterprise shift, IT’s ability to support and protect the remote work environment must shift correspondingly. Develop a comprehensive telecommuter policy to mitigate potential liabilities. Train the staff to adhere to the policy and protect the enterprise with the appropriate insurance. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Because a problem in a telecommuter’s IT environment is a problem within the enterprise. Don’t allow exceptions in the field that would never be allowed down the hall.

Related hiring and staffing articles: