Has telecommuting finally become mainstream?

As the desire for workplace flexibility continues to be an accepted fact of contemporary working life, more and more businesses are wrestling with how exactly to embrace – or curtail – telecommuting as the new normal.

Work from home? Flex time? Cube farm? What's work look like in your workplace – if you have a workplace at all?

Allowing employees to work from home part or full-time continues apace.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2014 on days worked, 23 percent of employee persons did some or all of their work from home while 85 percent did some or all of their work at the workplace.

This is only a slight uptick from 2003, the first year these measures were taken. But it is progress. Then, 19 percent of employed persons did some or all of their work at home while 87 percent did some or all of their work at their workplace on days worked. But the relatively consistency of the numbers show that, for a good portion of the workplace population, telecommuting has become an integral part of the work-live balance.

"It's about productivity and performance," says David Mizne, content manager of 15Five, a provider of employee feedback and engagement software. "If you're traveling an hour commute each way, it drains you. If I wake up, have my coffee, and do my yoga, I'm probably going to be productive."

It's also about the work/life balance, he says, something that not just millennials are asking for, but older employees, too. And companies may save a bit of money in the process, too.

Workplace disruption

In its recent survey of over 500 managers, supervisors and executives, 15Five found that 53 percent of companies have a standard workplace, meaning that employees come into the office four or more days a week; 37 percent have a main office space with some people working remotely and 10 percent have no office space at all.

The reasons why companies allowed these previously untraditional work arrangements: 24 percent said that it improves the quality of life for employees; 21 percent said that productivity improved and 19 percent said that it gave them access to the best candidates regardless of geographic location.

[Related: 10 IT workplace predictions for 2016]

"We're certainly seeing that millennials do want that work/life balance, and this is one of those ways that it can be achieved," says Mizne. But they're not the only who want that flexibly from their employers: He said that older workers with children are looking for more creative work solutions, and employers are giving it to them.

Technology has allowed this to happen: That's obvious. A lack of communication barrier is what keeps it going. In the 15Five survey, 41 percent of respondents said that communication with remotely working employees was about the same, and 22 percent of respondents said they had better communication with remote employees.

Shifting employees to remote workplaces can also allow companies to save on real estate costs. If everyone doesn't need to have a full-time office at the office, employers don't need to keep paying for that much space. The 15Five survey found that 5 percent of respondents were setting up work from home arrangements to cut down on overhead.

"It's a very good thing for employers in certain instances because they're saving on rent and real estate costs," says Kathie Caminiti, partner at Fisher & Phillips. "Where they're using a bull pen of desks for employees but they don't have to have a desk for every employer on their roster – that's a significant cost savings."

Doing it right

Of course, this isn't going to work for everybody in every situation: Development teams may need to be together; customer service might not be a job to be done in a home office in sweatpants.

If your company is considering a work from home arrangement, Mizne suggests that employers "tread softly. Start small with a certain number of people," he says, or allow those employees who want to work from home to do so once a week at the start. Focus on communication with employees who are working remote, and if it continues to work, the company can expand who can work from home and how often.

Caminiti says that the employer needs to set clear guidelines of "that the job duties and responsibilities in performance are adhered to" in the form of a telecommuting policy. "The employer needs to make clear that job duties, responsibilities, job expectations and adherence to company rules apply to employees in the brick and mortar office as well as remotely."

The employer also needs to make clear – and the employee needs to understand – that the "work at home arraignment is not a substitute for other personal obligations" like child care or elder care. "They are working and they are expecting to be at work fully attendant to their time."

Any work-from-home policy should also address who's going to pay for what -- including the cost of equipment and technology and maintenance of those materials -- and the at-home office space. If an employee is not salaried, how will the company ad employee determine a clear line of what's work and what's not? "That's important because if somebody is working off the clock just because they happen to have a home office, they should be paid for their time worked," she says.

[Related: 5 essential tools for the telecommuters]

The company and employee should also review the employee's homeowners' or rental insurance, and that any policy "require the employee working at home to indemnify the employer if an accident were to happen," she says. "To use a very simple example: If somebody trips over your laptop cord in your home office on your premises, the telecommuting agreement would likely include a duty to indemnify the employer so the employer doesn't get sued by the person who tripped over the cord."

She also recommends adding a clause that the employer can end the work from home agreement at any time. Because while trends are shifting away from the commuting into the office, it's not going to work for everyone.

"Technology allows us to work from just about anywhere. From an employee perspective that's a real advantage. From the employer perspective, there is an absolute advantage, but the risk is that the employee's not dedicating full intention to the job," says Caminiti. "That's why you need clear understanding of the arrangement."

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