Six Issues for Businesses to Consider When Managing Remote Employees

Allowing employees to work from home can provide significant benefits for employers and employees. It can improve morale, reduce real estate and facility costs — and even reduce traffic congestion and make the environment cleaner. However, when the appropriate oversight is lacking, fraud and abuse can result and wipe out many, if not all of the benefits associated with a work-from-home program.

Working remotely doesn’t only involve conducting business from an employee’s home. It can also be conducted from a telework center or any alternative location authorized by the employer.
Examining More Upsides and Downsides of Remote Work

Pros Cons
Cost savings. Having employees work from home can reduce the demand for office space and also cut facility operating and parking costs. Not for everyone: Some employees are reluctant to work at home because they fear less “face time” will reduce their chances for promotion. Others need or want an office environment.
Work/ life balance. There is more time for employees to care for their loved ones and address home emergencies. Time-worked disputes. Without a predetermined system to record hours, disputes may arise over the time actually worked.
It’s green. Reducing the number of commutes to the workplace saves fuel, reduces vehicle carbon emissions and traffic congestion. Performance fears. Managers may equate the loss of presence in the office with an automatic drop in performance. They may need to adjust to a results-oriented culture not focused on processes.
Continuity of operations: For private companies as well as government agencies, working from home may continue during a snowstorm, natural disaster, terrorist attack or other emergency situation. Security. While today’s technology can minimize  risks, laptops can be stolen, and the IT infrastructure must be properly designed. Sometimes, security risks mean certain jobs simply can’t be performed off-site.
Accommodation. Working from home can better accommodate individuals with disabilities. Friction among employees. Staffers who remain in the workplace may resent remote workers.
Performance is enhanced or maintained: Remote worker performance may exceed or remain on par with what they did in the traditional workplace. Many report they convert the old drive time into productive working hours. Absenteeism may be reduced. There may be fewer interruptions. Performance suffers. Without a workplace structure, some employees spend time on housework, watching television and other distractions. Parents may save money on childcare by watching their young children while working, which causes a drop in productivity.
Job satisfaction. Working from home can increase personal freedom and flexibility, improve employee morale, and decrease stress. Safety. There may be potential liabilities if employees are injured off-site. Consult with your attorney before initiating a remote employment program.
Retention and recruitment. Offering a work-at-home option can increase an employer’s attractiveness in the job market and lead to reduced turnover. Equipment cost, loss and damage. Work-at-home programs should address who pays for equipment, how it must be utilized and what happens if it’s lost, stolen or damaged.
Staying in touch. Using instant messaging, conference calls, webinars, collaboration software and other technology can help employees feel less isolated. Remote team conflicts. Relationship problems among teams working remotely are sometimes harder to solve than those among on-site employees.

Before allowing employees to commute to desks within their homes, consider the following issues to minimize the risk and maximize the returns associated with a work-from-home program:

1. Does working from home make sense for certain jobs? There are numerous positions within a company that, despite pleas to the contrary from employees, are not suitable candidates for a work-from-home program.

For example, allowing a manager with a broad span of control to work remotely is probably not a good idea. Managing by phone is far less effective than being physically present. Further, employees will likely resent the fact that their manager is allowed to work from home while they are stuck in the office.

Before announcing the creation of a work-from-home program, identify all of the positions in your company that will not be allowed to participate. Be sure to engage your company’s legal counsel to ensure that the process does not violate employment law or create employee relations issues.

2. Not everyone can be eligible. For employees that are underperforming or have a track record of discipline issues, a work-from-home program might be viewed as an opportunity to “hide out” and avoid the scrutiny that comes from working in an office. In partnership with your human resources department, develop criteria that employees must meet in order to be considered for the program.

For example, you might require that suitable candidates must have earned a “meets expectations” rating in their prior performance reviews and have no outstanding discipline issues.  3. How will productivity be monitored? There is an assumption that once an employee is allowed to work from home that their productivity will at least be equal to their “in office” performance — or may even be better. This may be true but for employees who have never worked from home before, the distractions of home life (including a significant other, young children, noisy next-door neighbors or just plain loneliness) may be too much to bear and their productivity may actually decline.

This begs the question: Once an employee is out of sight, how will their performance be monitored? There are a number of technology solutions that can track keystrokes, periodically capture pictures of the employee’s computer screen as well as record activity within specific software systems. Regardless of the approach used, there must be some mechanism to track productivity and ultimately performance otherwise the employee’s involvement in the work from home program may be short lived.

4. Should the employee use a company-issued computer? Since an employee’s personal computer may not have the most up-to-date virus software in place, the risk that the employee could download a virus that could not only affect his or her device but the company’s entire network is significant. Since it is also conceivable that the employee’s computer is accessible by other members of the family, the risk of data loss, theft or disclosure of customers’ private information is also a real concern.There can also be problems if an employee is working on a personally owned computer and the employer receives an e-discovery request. Electronically stored information (ESI) is routinely requested in civil and criminal proceedings. Complying can be difficult if, for example, an employer doesn’t know what files or records employees have on their home computers or if an employee alters files or destroys them after an e-discovery request is received.If at all possible, remote employees should only be allowed to use company-issued computers. Doing so ensures that the employee’s computer is subject to the same virus and system upgrades as the rest of the company issued devices and therefore they will be less likely to contract an infection that could bring the company’s information technology infrastructure to its knees. Mandating that employees use company-issued computers also reduces the risk that your company will be unable to comply with an e-discovery request.5. What happens if data does go “missing?” Allowing employees to work in their home offices can give them the false impression that no one is watching what they are actually doing with the company’s data. Before your company launches a work-from-home program, think about the data that homebound employees will have access to as well what would happen if that data were lost, stolen or just misplaced. For example, if an employee working from home decides to steal confidential data, how would your company know? What if the employee is the victim of a home invasion during which their laptop is stolen? How much of the company’s data is stored on the employee’s laptop? Is it encrypted? What could your company do to limit or mitigate the potential damage if such an event was to occur?

6. What about travel expenses? It was recently reported that 95 employees with the U.S. General Services Administration submitted travel reimbursement requests totaling $750,000 over a nine-month period. Since all 95 employees were part of the administration’s work-from-home program, it is unclear why they incurred travel expenses of this magnitude. In fact, during 2010 and 2011, 12 of the supervisors that were part of the program received more than $200,000 in travel expense reimbursements. As the case shows, the potential for fraud and abuse by remote employees should be a concern. One of the simplest ways to combat expense fraud by work-from-home employees is to ensure they are appropriately identified in the company’s expense reimbursement system as remote employees.

For example, most expense reimbursement systems require that an employee include their home office or base on their expense statement. For remote employees, that designation could appear as “Remote” or “VE” (virtual employee) or “WFH” (work from home). The actual naming convention is not important. What is important is that your company can periodically target expense reimbursement requests from remote employees to ensure that expenses are reasonable, consistent with their remote location status, and ultimately consistent with company policy.

With appropriate policies, management and safeguards in place, you can help ensure that your company reaps the benefits of a work-from-home program and that employees perform at their best, whether they are working down the hall or in an off-site office far away.