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Sun 5 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

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Home alone

Fiona Robertson from the Rights Lawyers takes a look at some issues you might want to consider if you have employees working from home.

Home alone

There is no question that most employers have a cynical reaction to an employee who asks if it is possible for them to work from home from time to time. The reasons for this are unclear, but this may be because of a management style based on monitoring coupled with mistrust. Many employees however, when given the opportunity to work from home, can perform well.

There are benefits to consider. Environmentally, it takes a car off the road. It promotes a work environment that is family-friendly. It reduces your overheads and gives employees a sense that the employers care about their well being.

But how can you as an employer ensure that you are getting the best out of your employees who work from home? If you have employees working from home, it is important to review their performance. Whilst many companies adhere to the annual performance review, it is advisable to increase frequency for employees who work from home particularly in the first 12 months of the term. In these early days performance reviews will help you to set targets and performance indicators for the employee.

But what targets and indicators do you use? How do you tell how many hours a day an employee is working when they are not sitting at a desk in your office? How do you measure how much time they are spending online or how many times a week they take more than an hour for lunch? Clearly these indicators have no relevance when an employee works from home.

Targets and indicators should always directly relate to a role. If the employee is involved in a marketing role, then the deliverables should not be how many hours they spend on producing a proposal but instead, perhaps, how many people have received it or how much press has been generated. If the employee is in the accounts department, it is easy to monitor the amount of work they do as you will get copies, but perhaps key dates can be set.

Many managers fall into the easy trap of bypassing regular performance reviews with work-at-home employees. They opt for the much simpler option of requiring the employee do task lists or activity logs on a weekly or daily basis. This merely provides a subjective analysis of the employee, by the employee. It does not encourage the employee to take control of the work processes and deliver results. Also, these subjective task lists could become evidence in the employee’s favour if a labour dispute arises at a later date.

So why is a lawyer lecturing on how to properly manage the performance of employees who work from home? If you don’t set up a means of reviewing performances for these employees, it is difficult to fire them for poor performance. Best practice is to include targets and indicators in an employment contract with a workable mechanism for changing them from time to time. Get changes to targets and indicators signed by the employee after each performance review.

When writing down performance indicators for staff, it is important to keep things tangible and objective. While everyone expects “highest standards” of an employee, include all of the tangible measures that you have developed for them.

If you do undertake an overhaul of your targets and indicators for employees, don’t forget to also consider your interaction with them. Schedule regular calls to discuss projects. They should keep you informed of their progress using mutually understood milestones. Do not ignore answers that appear to avoid issues.

If a work-at-home employee is not performing to your expectations, then you need to go through the usual termination process. With work-at-home employees however, you also have another choice: you can ask them if they would consider working back in the office. Make sure you include that option in your employment contract as well!

Fiona Robertson is a solicitor with the Rights Lawyers.

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