To ensure the success of your company's telecommuting program, consider all aspects of a work-at-home situation and craft a written policy.

If your company allows employees to telecommute, chances are good these telecommuting arrangements developed spontaneously rather than as a well-thought-out policy. As a result, many companies overlook the potential risks associated with telecommuting. Yet, managing and minimizing those risks is an important step toward maximizing the benefits of telecommuting for everyone involved.

Managing the risks of telecommuting is really no different from managing the risks of working in a modern office building. In fact, companies that already have people working remotely, such as salespeople and truck drivers, have a better handle on telecommuting risks than they might think. After all, the policies and guidelines that work for remote employees can be modified and expanded to deal with the unique aspects of the telecommuting arrangement. Here are some of the issues to consider.

Choose the right people. Risk management begins when companies carefully choose the right people for telecommuting. “Telecommuting is valuable for certain people in certain jobs,” said Gil Gordon, president of Gil Gordon Associates, a telecommuting consulting firm. “It certainly is not universal.” The “right” person for a telecommuting arrangement has a strong work history, is highly motivated, can work with minimal supervision, and has a vested interest in making the telecommuting arrangement a success.

Put it in writing. A written telecommuting policy should cover all aspects of the arrangement, including what is expected of the employee (terms and conditions of employment, how performance will be evaluated, and so on), what the employee can expect of the company (company-provided support and equipment), and what is needed for the arrangement to succeed.

To avoid any misunderstandings, companies should remind employees in the policy that telecommuters must still satisfy all the terms and conditions of employment that govern on-site employees. Many companies require that employees sign a formal telecommuting agreement spelling out such things as telecommuting days and required work hours, what home office-related expenses (both start-up and ongoing) will be reimbursed, how often the employee will contact the office on telecommuting days, and other conditions of the arrangement. The agreement can also state that if these conditions are not met, the employee will be required to return to a on-site work arrangement.

Safety. Telecommuting employees must have a work space that meets the same safety standards as those in force at the company location. Does the office have proper ventilation and lighting? Does the equipment meet the company's ergonomic standards? Does the space require electrical upgrades to handle the necessary equipment? “To ensure that employees have an acceptable work space, our managers must visit the home office of each of their telecommuting employees at least twice a year,” said John Ingram, director of Cigna Property & Casualty's Loss Control Services, which employs several hundred telecommuters. Each manager has a list of equipment in each employee's home office and “can make sure that the ergonomic equipment provided for the employee hasn't been packed away in a closet,” said Ingram.

A written telecommuting policy can also provide guidelines on how the office should be set up to minimize accidents and injuries. Cigna Loss Control Services developed a “Virtual Office Concept,” which details a telecommuting setup. As a preventive measure, companies can provide training in ergonomics and workplace safety to help telecommuters prevent some common injuries and accidents.

Insurance. If a telecommuter sustains a work-related injury, the company's workers compensation policy is likely to cover it. However, if the injury occurs outside of the employee's home office, such as in another part of the house or while the employee is running an errand after normal business hours, the injury will not appear to be work related for workers compensation purposes. Companies should ask their workers compensation provider for an explanation of what is considered a work-related injury in a work-at-home situation and communicate that definition to employees.

Companies may need to purchase an additional insurance policy to cover the equipment in the employee's home office. However, because the deductible for such corporate policies can be quite high and may not cover a given piece of equipment, “many companies eat the cost of the equipment or self-insure,” said Gordon. For a lower deductible and a lower cost policy, the company can opt to have telecommuters purchase riders to their homeowner's insurance policies for “incidental business coverage” to insure the contents of the home office. The cost of this rider is relatively modest (about $100 per year per household) and can be reimbursed by the company.

Equipment. Practical arrangements for equipment need to be made between the company and the telecommuter. How much and what kind of equipment will be needed and who will pay for what are issues that should be clearly spelled out in the telecommuting policy. The policy should also clearly state whether company-owned equipment can be used for non-business purposes and by non-employees (e.g., family members) of the company. Companies should also clearly articulate in the written policy the guidelines regarding the return of equipment if the telecommuter should leave the company or return to an on-site work arrangement.

Security. Manage security risks in the same way they are handled on-site. For example, employees who work with sensitive documents should be required to use a paper shredder. “Companies may think that telecommuting increases the chances that confidentiality or trade secrets can be compromised,” said Gordon. “However, think about how easy it is for an on-site employee to walk out of the office with files, computer disks and even equipment. The security guard probably holds the door open for them.”

A telecommuting arrangement may, however, tax the security controls of the company's computer system, especially if employees will be accessing the computer system and transferring files on a regular basis. It is a good idea to team up with your systems people to determine if additional security features, such as passwords, restricted address, fire walls, caller ID, and callback, are needed.