Remote Workers and Telecommuting Practices for Nonprofits

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Flexibility is one of the most important determinants of employee satisfaction and retention. Not surprisingly, flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, are becoming more commonplace. Advances in technology allow remote workers to stay connected with their workplaces, and mobile devices can now be used by workers to perform many, if not all, tasks that were once possible only from traditional offices.

The reality today is that work has become so mobile that some nonprofits operate with “virtual offices.” For their staff, each worker is a remote worker. And nonprofits that do have physical offices may still want to offer employees the option of flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, from time to time, since it can boost productivity, save employees travel time, and potentially help close the gender gap and reduce the nonprofit’s carbon footprint.

Consequently, an increasing number of nonprofits may be operating through remote workers. Even if your nonprofit doesn’t have a remote or telecommuting worker on its staff today, it’s highly likely your nonprofit will employ someone, at some point, who will work remotely on a regular basis, or telecommute for at least a temporary period of time. Does your nonprofit need a written policy to address the situation? Perhaps not, if the nonprofit’s code of conduct or personnel policies are flexible enough to address remote workers, but it’s most likely that at least some policies and procedures will need to be re-evaluated with remote workers in mind.

Reports show increasing numbers of workers spending at least half the work week telecommuting, and more and more employers focusing on offering flexible work spaces as a recruitment and retention tool. Census data show that, as of June 2017, 50 percent of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with telecommuting, and approximately 20-25 percent telework with some frequency. The same data reported that 80-90 percent of workers said they would like to telecommute at least part-time. But not all employers will adopt remote work practices, and certainly not all positions are appropriate for remote work. A nonprofit employer may need to retain the discretion to decide if a particular position/role is not eligible for telecommuting.

Practice Pointers

  • Customized arrangements can help retain valuable employees, but anytime an employer crafts a policy for one person/situation, the policy should be reviewed by legal counsel to make sure it does not create a risk of being applied in a discriminatory manner.
  • The nonprofit may need to invest in new technology in order to adequately support employees who are telecommuting, so they have the same tools and access to the same information and capabilities that they would have if they were in the office, and so that the nonprofit’s data security is not breached.
  • Not being in the office regularly can be isolating for remote workers. Try to find ways for regular check-ins with colleagues who work remotely and work extra hard to share information that they would have had access to if they were just down the hall. Consider ways to use video conferencing creatively to connect remote workers with their teammates.
  • Should remote workers have webcams on their computer monitors? Cameras may increase the levels of engagement with remote workers, as long as workers in the office also have webcams, so the cameras can be used for two-way conversations.
  • The expectations for following workplace policies and procedures should be the same for remote and telecommuting workers as for their colleagues who are regularly working in the office. However, there will always be a need for remote workers to rigorously manage their teammates’ expectations with respect to when they will be away from their desks. Some employers may ask remote workers to log in and log out or use a shared calendar so that their teammates know when they are available.
  • Success with remote work is a matter of managing expectations. Be sure to set expectations about working hours, especially if remote workers are in different time zone. This article suggests three rules for success with remote workers: (1) make the work traceable; (2) keep the employee engaged; and (3) create an atmosphere of trust.
  • There are practical issues of ownership and reimbursement of costs that the nonprofit employer and remote worker will need to work out in connection with the employee’s workstation, computer, and cell phone. Home offices may also trigger concerns about data security, property and casualty liability insurance coverage, including workers compensation insurance, and state tax liability if the worker’s home is in a different state from the nonprofit employer’s principal office.
  • Nonprofits with virtual offices need to consider how to adjust traditional workplace policies for their circumstances, as well as how to manage the public’s expectations about finding a physical address on the nonprofit’s website. 

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