Q. Most people in my company live relatively close to the office, but I live a decent commute away. Last winter, I was forced to use vacation time when I couldn’t travel due to weather travel bans and I wasn’t allowed to work from home. What can I do this year to work from home and avoid being put in the same situation?
A. Winter is a tricky time for commuters. Intense storms, icy roads and delayed or missing trains can make it impossible or nearly impossible to reach the office. Attorney Michael Birch at Hirsch, Roberts and Weinstein points out that contrary to what some believe, the declaration of a state of emergency does not in itself affect private companies. There are no automatic travel restrictions. Even where the Governor has asked (but not ordered) that people stay off the roads, businesses can remain open. Attorney Birch also notes the bad news is, “Yes, an employer can require a salaried worker who is absent due to inclement weather to use a vacation or personal day when the office is open.”
Many managers and organizations are not prepared to manage people remotely; they have great fear about getting an honest days work if no face time is involved. Having a conversation with your manager prior to the next big storm, may help him/her stretch his thinking and test out his assumptions.
First be honest. Can you do your job remotely? If you are the receptionist, it won’t work ; however, many other positions do allow for a snow day to turn into a work day from home, and not a total loss of productivity and a wasted vacation day. Do not take on the whole “work from home” argument at this point. Just the days that offer travel hazards. Organizations should have concerns for the safety of their employees.
Develop a plan to show your capability to work remotely. Which projects can easily be done remotely? What do you need to have with you the night before a storm to make sure you will be productive? Do you have any technology issues that will limit your capability? Can you ensure your technology is reliable, available to you, and that you are knowledgeable and self-sufficient. Do you have undisturbed space? Or will kids at home interrupt your efforts? You will need to address any issues that can be presented about why it wont work, before the issues are raised.
What other fears do you believe your manager has? On the proposed snow day, would speaking to your manager mid-day and later in the day help calm his concerns?
Trying to figure out your alternatives in advance is key to a possible, positive resolution to your challenge. How employers deal with these issues is often a matter of company policy. Many employers have written inclement weather policies to make clear whether and under what circumstances employees will be paid when they cannot report to work. Last year’s brutal winter highlighted the importance of inclement weather policies and the need to make expectations clear.
The ability to effectively work from home eliminates this issue for many employers and employees. An employer cannot require a salaried, exempt employee to take a vacation or personal day or make a pay deduction if he or she works from home. Attorney Birch points out, whether employees are permitted to work from home is often a matter of company policy. Some employers require prior permission from the employee’s supervisor. Employers are encouraged to balance their operational needs with the safety of their employees, and employees need to continue to be highly productive when they work remotely.