The Remote Workforce is Less Remote

Mobile Worker by Michael Coghlan, Flickr

As technology has taken hold in our workplaces and more jobs consist of knowledge work that can be done anywhere with an internet connection, reducing the physical plant requirements of business has been a logical progression. If an employee can effectively and productively work from home, why add unnecessary real estate costs to the company’s overhead—especially since control and flexibility increase workers’ job satisfaction and eliminating the commute reduces their stress.

Not at Work: Not Absent

In spite of occasional setbacks (like Marissa Mayers’ infamous memo), the entrenchment of the remote worker appears to be well underway. According to Global Workplace Analytics, between 2005 and 2012, telework grew by almost 80% in the U.S.[1] When we add a recent ruling in U.S. courts to this underlying trend, it seems the decision regarding whether or not an employee can work remotely may soon shift into the hands of the employee.

The National Law Review recently published a report about the ruling, stating:

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, 2-1, has determined that ‘attendance’ is no longer synonymous with physical presence in the workplace. EEOC v. Ford Motor Company, No. 12-2484 (6th Cir. Apr. 22, 2014)….With advances in technology, the Court stated, the workplace can be anywhere that an employee can perform his or her job duties.”[2]

In this instance, the employee asked to work from home to accommodate a debilitating illness and was refused. Since her work could be done on a computer, by telephone and via teleconferencing, the Court agreed that allowing her to work from home was a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Although this case is specific to reasonable accommodation of a disability, the Court did not limit its comments to situations of accommodation. In fact, statements like “attendance is no longer synonymous with physical presence in the workplace,” suggest that choosing whether to work from home or the office may soon be the prerogative of employees. At the very least, this and similar decisions will lend weight to any employee’s request to work from home, as long as the nature of the work does not require physical presence at the place of work.

Given that the increase in remote work and the growth of the broader contingent workforce is already a well-established trend, legal decisions such as these simply accelerate the movement in this direction. The most important takeaway from this legal decision is that employers should expect such requests to become more common and be prepared to allow remote work when the duties of the job make it possible. It would also make sense to identify which jobs can be done remotely and which can’t and to put systems and processes in place to manage and support remote workers as this segment of the workforce continues to grow.

Research increasingly shows that remote workers are happier, healthier and more productive than their office-bound colleagues, with a hybrid approach to telecommuting identified as the most beneficial by many; so perhaps it’s also time for employers to embrace the trend rather than just accommodating it.


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