Working From Home Makes People More Productive, but There Are Legal Risks

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 14, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Twenty-four percent of workers telecommute at least some time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while more than a third of professionals and managers do. And working from home doesn't mean sleeping in or slacking off. Research shows that telecommuting employees are slightly more productive.

But, work from home policies aren't a panacea. If not correctly instituted, telecommuting programs can raise significant legal risks.

Everyone Wants to Work From Home

America's home-based workforce has grown drastically in the past few years. In 2013, just 10 percent of the workforce worked at home one day a week. Today, that number has more than doubled. But the growth isn't even. Some industries have seen a much greater increase in telecommuting. Knowledge workers, for example, are much more likely to work from home. They are, after all, the people who don't need to screw in bolts, solder together circuit boards, or administer an IV.

Workers generally enjoy WFH programs. Eighty to 90 percent of the workforce would like to telecommute at least some time (generally two-three days), according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics. And working from home can save a pretty penny. With less office space and on-site overhead spending, companies could save an average of $11,000 per person. Workers themselves could save between $2,000 and $7,000 in commuting costs and other savings.

And then there's the productivity gains. In 2015, two economics professors at Stanford ran a WFH study with Ctrip, China's largest travel agent, offering its agents the option to work at home. Ctrip's aim was to reduce overhead and improve employee retention. They did, with turn over dropping almost 50 percent.

But the study also found that home workers' productivity rose significantly. Those who participated in the WFH experiment saw their productivity increase 13 percent. Those who were left behind saw no drop off in their productivity -- that is, there was no resentful slowdown by those working in-office.

In terms of retention, cost savings, and productivity, the benefits were clear.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Here's where the lawyers come in. If your company has or is considering a work from home policy, you'll want to carefully evaluate the legal risks. One of the biggest of these is with overtime. You'll want to make sure that working from home doesn't mean working all the time. Late night emails and phone calls may require compensation for nonexempt employees, and failure to track or pay for those hours can lead to lawsuits. You'll want to make sure you have a strong time-tracking program in place and establish clear boundaries about working hours.

There are also some confidentiality and security risks to address, as well. Will workers be using their own devices at their home? If so, you'll want to examine BYOD policies. Will they be working in public places, like the local coffee shop? That can raise questions about data security and confidentiality. Again, your WFH policy should address these.

Companies would also be wise to think twice before assigning their workforce to work from their couches. While the Ctrip study identified clear improvements related to telecommuting, when the experiment came to an end, many of the workers decided to return to the office.

They may have been more satisfied and productive at home, but they were also lonely.

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