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Telecommuting is on the rise as the country copes with COVID-19. Mandatory telecommuting may lower the risk of community spread, but it also presents new challenges for managing employees. Here are five tips employers should consider as they adjust to their new virtual workplaces.

Tip 1: Execute a Telecommuting Agreement with Employees

This is a simple task that, unfortunately, many employers forget to complete. A telecommuting agreement is an effective tool for establishing the rules for working remotely. The agreement should set forth expectations about work hours, work conditions, job duties and the employer's right to rescind permission to work remotely, among other things. A telecommuting agreement is especially important in the event an employer believes an employee has abused the telecommuting arrangement.

Employers that forgo a telecommuting agreement may later find themselves squabbling with employees about work-from-home rules. Executing a telecommuting agreement can help avoid that dispute.

Tip 2: Protect Confidential Information

Most employers go to great lengths to protect confidential information inside the workplace. They have firewalls, passwords and encryption software, just to name a few things. But what about confidential information outside the workplace? The risk of mishandling confidential information tends to rise with telecommuting. For example, employees may send work-related files to their personal email accounts as a workaround for accessing their employer's server from home. Telecommuting employees may also have family members who share their home computing devices or who can visibly observe confidential information in the remote work environment.

A well-drafted telecommuting agreement can (and should) establish the employee's obligations for safeguarding the employer's confidential information while working remotely.

Tip 3: Establish Remote Timekeeping Procedures for Non-Exempt Staff

Non-exempt employees working remotely is typically a big no-no. This is because non-exempt staff are entitled to overtime wages, and tracking work hours for telecommuting employees is difficult. COVID-19, however, has changed the traditional work environment.

Now, traditionally non-exempt staff such as administrative assistants and data-entry personnel may find themselves working from home for the first time. Employers should establish virtual sign-in sheets or other timekeeping procedures for all non-exempt employees who are permitted to telecommute. Failure to do so may result in costly wage-and-hour violations.

Tip 4: Embrace Assistive Technology to Keep Employees Engaged

Telecommuting has arguably never been easier. Whether it is Skype, Zoom, Slack, Jabber or other virtual meeting and communication software, employers have a variety of effective tools for staying in touch with their telecommuting employees. There is, of course, no replacement for a face-to-face interaction, but most employers do not need to settle for a simple conference call over the phone.

Utilizing assistive technology for telecommuting can help employees stay engaged as we all adjust to new virtual offices. And engaged employees tend to be more productive employees.

Tip 5: Remind Employees That Telecommuting Is Not a Permanent Replacement for Working within the Employer's Workplace

For most employers, telecommuting in response to COVID-19 is not intended as a permanent work arrangement. Employers should remind employees (in writing, preferably) that telecommuting is a temporary measure in response to an unanticipated safety threat. This reminder will help avoid claims that an employee should be permitted to telecommute permanently.

This is particularly important in the disability accommodation context, where disabled employees may request permanent telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation of their inability to travel to the workplace. If the employer believes one or more of the employee's primary job duties cannot be performed remotely on a permanent basis, it should disclose that fact to the employee now rather than later.

Reprinted with permission from Venable Insights, March 20, 2020. 

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