Finding managers who insist that employees adhere to a rigid attendance schedule isn't hard, but it's certainly tougher than before. The number of U.S. workers who telecommute has risen 115 percent since 2005, according to the 2017 State of Telecommuting in the U.S. Employee Workforce report, from 1.8 million to 3.9 million workers. And that number is expected to grow as the tight talent market pushes more employers to adopt flexible working arrangements to accommodate the scheduling needs of hard-to-find-and-keep employees.
HR professionals who are new to offering flexwork are often relieved to learn that there is a clear business case in favor of it. An American Sociological Association study demonstrated that IT workers at a Fortune 500 company who participated in a flexible work program reported higher levels of job satisfaction and reduced levels of burnout and psychological stress than employees at the same company who did not participate. The study concluded that a well-implemented flexwork policy can help your company, as long as HR addresses the most pressing concerns of employees and managers.
No Such Thing as a Standard Policy
How should HR define flexwork? At many employers, initial flexwork programs mean employees work from the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days, with a small degree of freedom to work from home on Fridays or sign off early in the event of a personal conflict. But as flexwork and telecommuting―an arrangement in which employees work remotely most or all the time―grow in popularity and become more customized, organizations often get creative to develop policies that will work best for them.
At Los Angeles-based Aecom, a design and construction firm with 85,000 global employees, the HR and legal departments worked together to develop the company's flexwork policy, said Sonja Glatzhofer, vice president of human resources. They defined flexible work as a variable in-office schedule, while telecommuting is defined as working from home.
"Both flexwork and telecommuting are most common on the design side of our business," Glatzhofer said. "We've deployed them in a more limited way on the construction side, because you can't put up a building from your kitchen."
An organization's flexwork arrangement will depend on the nature of the business, but in all cases, HR needs to develop a clear and comprehensive policy that details exactly how managers can implement it and how employees can use it. The policy should also include eligibility guidelines, such as a description of who is eligible for flexwork and under what circumstances. The type of role, attendance record, tenure with the organization and job performance are all factors that might impact individual eligibility.
The policy should include expectations for how work will get done outside the office, incorporating work hours, communications and home-office needs. It should also spell out how flex workers should use company devices and networks so that HR protects the organization's proprietary data and intellectual property.
At Aecom, employees must formally request and receive approval from their managers and HR. But many leaders are skittish about allowing employees to work in unorthodox situations.
"We still have managers who hesitate to approve flexwork and telecommuting because they fundamentally believe that if you aren't onsite every day, you aren't doing your job," Glatzhofer said. "There's also the fear that employees won't understand that we're a service company and that client needs supersede individual flexwork arrangements. HR tries to serve as the referee, helping to figure out how we can make flexibility work for all parties."
At Susan G. Komen, a Dallas-based nonprofit that funds breast cancer research, HR has played a critical role in shaping the flexwork program the organization launched four years ago for its 220 full-time employees.
"In hindsight, our initial rollout involved too many options. For example, employees could work from home one, two or three days a week, or they could work four longer days with a half day off," said Catherine Olivieri, vice president of human resources. "It was a lot to keep up with, and it created productivity and collaboration problems because no one was around at the same time, and you never knew if a colleague was on [paid time off] or working remotely."
In April, Susan G. Komen simplified the flexwork program to two options for director-level employees and below. "Employees can work from home one day a week, or they can work nine days with one day off in a two-week period," Olivieri said. "You have to request and be approved for the schedule, and your manager has to fill out an impact statement. This process encourages everyone to think about whether the arrangement will work for the group and the organization. Everything is much clearer now."
Potential Legal Pitfalls to Avoid
Of course, it's always wise to consult your attorney before rolling out a new flexwork or telecommuting policy, but it's also helpful to be aware of the frequently encountered snafus. For example, in many organizations, monitoring actual hours worked is the stickiest issue associated with flexwork and telecommuting. Gena Usenheimer, a partner and employment attorney with Seyfarth Shaw LLP in New York, said that she has witnessed an explosion of overtime cases in particular.
"According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees must meet certain requirements to be exempt from overtime," Usenheimer said, adding that state laws come into play, too. "You should make sure your exemption classifications are solid so that you can defend that the position is, in fact, not eligible for overtime. The idea is to protect your organization from claims down the road challenging the exemption and therefore the hours worked."
But can't overtime-eligible employees have flextime arrangements too? They can, but it's riskier, she said. "With flextime, it's more difficult to prove whether employees worked a lot of overtime or not, and the law lends credence to the employee's recollection over the company's, especially if the company hasn't kept really good records."
In fact, at Aecom, only employees designated as exempt can apply to telecommute.
'Insurance' for Flexwork and Telecommuting Arrangements
Before rolling out any new flexwork or telecommuting policy, Usenheimer suggests building in a three-to-six-month trial period to assess how well the arrangement is working for individual employees. Once an arrangement is mature, it should be reviewed annually, on a case-by-case basis. If employees are taking unfair advantage or are simply not contributing to their best ability, HR should make sure it has recourse for action.
"Employers can protect themselves from the pitfalls of flexwork by putting in stop-gap measures upfront," Usenheimer said. "For example, written policies should make clear that to be eligible for flextime, you must be an employee in good standing to apply; you must adhere to certain parameters, including how to record hours and ensure all work is on the clock; and you must accept that the company can reverse course after six months if your manager isn't happy with the outcome."
Finally, understand liability issues, ensuring that the company's workers' compensation policy incorporates flexwork and telecommuting employees. "Workers' compensation laws vary from state to state, but in New York, for instance, an employee whose home serves as an additional place of employment may be compensated,' so long as the injury arises out of and in the course of employment," Usenheimer said.
Flexwork and telecommuting employees should be provided with all the equipment needed to do their jobs and assume the company is responsible for it. "The employer usually bears the obligation for equipment that may be damaged during work-related activities," Usenheimer said.
Understanding What Constitutes Success
Measuring the effectiveness of flexwork and telecommuting arrangements is a critical aspect of sustaining buy-in for any program. "To gauge the success of our flexwork programs, our key metric is sentiment around work/life balance and our annual global employee engagement survey, which includes specific questions about this," said Kim Nugent, vice president of talent management at workforce solutions company Kronos. "Levels of engagement and positive sentiment are then connected with individual, team and company performance measurements."
For her part, Aecom's Glatzhofer is pleased with the company's flexwork policy and anticipates an eventual expansion.
"It decreases stressful commutes, makes people feel better about taking care of their families and doesn't cost us anything," she said. "As long as we are getting the productivity we want, we consider flexwork a key differentiator that leads to better engagement and retention."
Flexwork Policies: 5 Musts to Consider
- Don't go it alone. Consult similar organizations to assess what has worked for them, and speak with an attorney before formalizing a policy.
- Recognize that, sometimes, less is more. Launching with fewer options will provide clarity and transparency. You can always expand your program later.
- Ensure employees are properly educated on flexwork policies, including eligibility, expectations and deal-breakers.
- Facilitate remote communication tools and resources so workflow proceeds seamlessly between in-office and out-of-office employees.
- Consider success metrics that are meaningful to the organization, and position flexwork as a business, rather than as just a feel-good benefit.
Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, 2018). Based in suburban Chicago, Levit consults on the future of work for a variety of Fortune 500 organizations and previously advised the Obama administration on workforce-related issues.