Q&A: Elham Shirazi – telecommuting consultant
A telecommuting consultant advises on the right way to handle employee benefits
THE SUCCESS OF A TELECOMMUTING PROGRAM OFTEN depends on how clearly the telemanager establishes the policy and guidelines. This is especially true when the employee’s benefits come into play, according to Elham Shirazi, a Los Angeles-based telecommuting consultant for small and large companies who counts AT&T, GTEL (a branch of GTE), and Hughes Aerospace among her clients. Shirazi offers the following advice for managers in the process of setting up benefits policies for their teleworkers.
Q: What are the first steps a company needs to take when developing a benefits package?
A: Initially, the telemanager needs to outline a few crucial goals. First, why is the company implementing a telework policy? To reduce overhead? To improve employee recruitment and retention? Often, it can be to improve office morale. A company’s goals will go a long way in defining exactly what kind of benefits it will want to offer its teleworkers.
Q: What should the criteria be as far as each individual?
A: The telemanager needs to establish whether the employee will be teleworking full time or part time. Some employees telework part time, only once or twice a week. Full time teleworkers, on the other hand, go into the office only occasionally. Policies differ significantly between these two types.
Q: What are some of the differences between policies for full- and part-time employees?
A: Equipment policies tend to be very different [between] the two groups. With full-time employees, the telemanager should attempt to simulate the technology that’s back at the office as much as possible. This means setting up the employee with a computer, printer, fax machine, and a separate phone line, at the very minimum. For a part-time employee who works at home two or three days a week, it’s not as important to have every piece of office equipment. In fact, a lot of part-time employees provide their own equipment and can manage with one phone line. The amount and type of equipment needed for teleworking will depend on the nature of the job and the frequency of teleworking.
Q: What are some similarities?
A: With both full- and part-time employees, the telemanager should sit down with the teleworker and lay out some guidelines. Both parties need to address issues like what kind of equipment will be used at home, who will set up the equipment, how will technical support be provided, how are common costs–such as printer cartridges and paper–covered, how often does the teleworker need to call in, should the teleworker have a pager, and should the teleworker be reachable by his home phone number.
Q: Are some jobs a natural fit for setting up a telecommuting program?
A: Depending on how much communication and interaction is needed, some jobs can be better suited for telecommuting than others. Jobs that necessitate frequent staff meetings, collaboration, and interaction are probably better suited for part-time telecommuting, while those that don’t require a lot of interaction are better for full-time telecommuting programs.
Q: How do you decide on the amount of insurance coverage to lay out for the teleworker’s office equipment?
A: Almost every company I’ve worked with has followed the general rule of thumb that if the employee provides the equipment, the employee handles the insurance. If the employer provides the computer, fax machine, and the printer, then the employer is responsible for the upkeep and insurance of those systems. Often, when an employee provides the equipment, that equipment might be located in a room where the employee’s family has access to and uses it. If the company is providing the equipment, no one other than the employee should use it. In many situations of part-time teleworking, the company will not provide any equipment. Many companies have a stable of laptops that they give out to employees under the assumption that not everyone will be teleworking out of the office on the same days.
Q: Can an employee ask for a very basic setup and then supplement the system out of his own pocket?
A: Yes. Some employers, for example, might be willing to pay for a modem on an employee’s computer if it means that the employee will be sending company e-mail with it.
Q: What are some mistakes a telemanager can make in choosing whether to implement a telework policy?
A: The most common misconception managers have is that employees need to be visible in order to manage them. Many employees are outside of the office as it is. You don’t have to see them all the time.
Q: What happens if an employee gets injured at home while working?
A: If the employee is hurt or involved in an accident while working [during preestablished work hours and in the employee’s home work space], he is covered by workers’ compensation, just as at the regular place of business.
Q: Are there any particular precautions the telemanager should take regarding the teleworker’s insurance coverage?
A: The telemanager should discourage meetings from taking place in the teleworker’s home. If something happens to that third party, the company will be liable. What’s more, a home is not an appropriate replacement for the office environment for a meeting. All employers should require meetings to occur at the workplace or at the client’s site.
Q: What about health benefits?
A: Health benefits should remain untouched. Once you develop goals and policies for teleworkers, the teleworker’s benefits should remain the same as for those employees working full time inside the office. The only difference is the location of work. The same hours, benefits, and rights apply with the teleworker. The exception is with freelance contractors who telecommute. In those cases, the freelancer usually handles his own insurance, and provides and maintains office equipment.
Q: Who should the teleworker’s point person be for questions about human-resources-related questions?
A: In most cases where telecommuting programs are launched, the human resources department designs the guidelines, but individual managers implement the policies and deal with employee questions and problems.
Q: Can teleworking potentially cut down on the amount of sick leave an employee takes?
A: Yes. An employee working in a regular office often has to take an afternoon off to go to a doctor’s appointment. But a teleworker can take one or two hours and then return to work. Also, an employee who doesn’t feel well enough to drive or whose child is sick is often capable of working at home.
Q: Can teleworking result in a decrease in the amount of overtime an employee takes?
A: Employees who work at home generally see their productivity rise, resulting in a reduced need for overtime.
Q: How is vacation time handled with teleworkers?
A: Vacation time should be unchanged. The same hours are accrued, so teleworking should not have an impact on vacation time, as long as the managers are comfortable with the work that is being delivered.
Q: What are some trends in how companies are setting up telecommuting programs?
A: A lot of companies are starting voluntary telework programs. [And] a lot of accounting firms are implementing the concept of hoteling, where they’ll cut space drastically to the point where the office becomes more like a hotel, used for meetings and conferences only. Employees call and reserve rooms, and a lot of the workstations simply have docking stations for employees to plug in their laptops to the company servers. Some companies are considering this as a way to cut overhead.
Frequent contributor CATHERINE GREENMAN writes about telecommuting trends for HOC.
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