The harder it is to find qualified employees, the more we pay attention to retaining talent. Companies don’t want employees to leave, because they can’t find a replacement. Or they can’t find a replacement quickly. So one of the ways to keep employees is to give them a benefit – like working from home.
But for telecommuting to be successful, everyone must be on the same page. That’s what today’s reader note is all about.
My husband is being put on a project in India for three months for work (we currently live in California) and his employer is taking care of our Visas. We feel that three months is too long to live apart so I planned to go with him and my boss enthusiastically agreed that I could telecommute during that time so that I won’t interrupt my job, which lends itself well to working remotely.
However, when my boss brought it up with HR, they told him it would not be OK for me to telecommute. We are keeping our home in California and will be gone a very short time, is continuing to work for my employer OK? I’m finding conflicting information online.
There are a couple of issues here – telecommuting and being a trailing spouse – so I’m going to write about them separately. First, the telecommuting part. Basically, telecommuting is when someone works from home. This doesn’t necessarily mean the employee never goes into the office. It’s possible they would be asked to attend meetings or certain events. But the majority of time, they’re working from home.
It also doesn’t mean the employee can do whatever they want. Typically, an organization would have a telecommuting policy that all employees would be expected to follow. Or the company would have an agreement with the employee regarding performance expectations.
I’m not aware of any law that requires organizations to offer telecommuting. But just to be sure, I asked our friend Kate Bischoff, attorney with the firm Zelle LLP in Minneapolis. She confirmed that there’s no affirmative requirement that an employer offer telecommuting as an option. However, she did add that “if an employee can do his/her job over the interwebs, does not need to attend meetings in person, then telecommuting may be a viable option as a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s disability.”
Kate cited a decision out of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals entitled EEOC v. Ford Motor Co. “In the case, an employee suffered from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a nasty disease. She worked from home on occasion and requested that she could work from home even more. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that working from home was a reasonable accommodation. Ford obviously did not agree. Ford argued that the company needed her to be at work since her job was ‘highly interactive.’ The EEOC prevailed at the District Court level, but Ford won at the Court of Appeals. While some management-side employment attorneys rejoiced, none of us believe that the issue is settled.”
Organizations would be well served to think about telecommuting from a strategic perspective. Kate shared that she was answering my question about telecommuting from a picnic table at her family’s cabin. “As technology advances, we’re increasingly able to work from anywhere at almost any time. For this reason, I don’t think the request to work from home as a reasonable accommodation is going to go away any time soon. Technology is making this sort of accommodation even easier to do and less of an undue burden for employers to accommodate. Even without the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) reasonable accommodation requirement, more and more employees want the flexibility to work from anywhere. The desires of those employees will force employers to do it to keep talent, so without the law, the talent market may require employers to do it even faster.”
Just because telecommuting is becoming less of a burden for employers and employees, doesn’t mean there aren’t advantages and disadvantages to telecommuting. Here are a few resources worth reading:
There’s also one other thing to consider. In this situation, the reader is talking about three-months. If telecommuting isn’t an option, it might make sense to ask for a sabbatical. I know it eats into the household budget, but it does allow someone to leave for a few months and return. Here’s an interview I did with Take Your Big Trip on “How to Talk with Your Boss about Talking Time Off.”
Last thing, and this is directed at the manager and human resources professional in this story. The key to any successful policy and employee request is being on the same page. The “manager says yes; HR says no” scenario happens way too often. If there isn’t a policy in place, managers need to talk with HR before approving telecommuting. And if the manager thinks telecommuting will work (even if there is no policy), HR might want to think about using this situation as a test case. No one wins when the employee is caught in the middle.
Next week, we’ll tackle part two of this reader note – trailing spouses. Stay tuned!
Image taken by Sharlyn Lauby in a South Florida parking garage1