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An employee asks at the last minute to work from home the next day. Maybe he has a sick child, or must wait for someone to show up to repair the washer. Maybe he is just looking for a quiet place to work away from the interruptions of the office. What does the boss do?

For employers who have a clear policy on working from home, one that takes into account the needs of the company and staff as a whole, allowing employees to work from home can be a win-win situation. Done badly, however, it can harm morale.

"Allowing individuals to cope with conflicting demands can actually create a more productive work force," says Daphne Woolf, a senior vice-president at human resources firm Aon Hewitt in Toronto.

But employers who don't have a clear stance on the issue can get into trouble, says Cori Maedel, chief executive officer of human resource consulting firm Jouta Performance Group in Vancouver.

"What happens is an employee will come in and say, 'Can I work from home?' and the employer won't have any practices in place and will say 'Yes,'" she says. Then, before you know it, other employees start asking.

Before employers give the green light, they should have an idea of what it means for an employee to work from home. "Employees need to understand what working from home looks like, when they can do it and what is expected of them," says Ms. Maedel.

The size and shape of the organization also are critically important, she says. "In larger organizations it's easier to absorb someone not being there. In smaller organizations, it's more difficult, because the cohesion of the team can be affected."

The necessary tools must be made available at home. "You want to make sure the hardware and software is there, but also the internal communication," says Ms. Woolf. The rest of the staff need to understand that the employee at home is actually available in the same way she would be if she were at the office.

"The employee needs to have a real workspace," adds Ms. Maedel. "They can't be working off the corner of the dining room table if they're going to be doing this on a necessary basis. Otherwise they won't be as productive. "

An employee's work ethic is another factor to take into consideration, says Ms. Woolf. "If an employer sees an employee being unproductive at work, they're not going to suggest they work from home. You're only going to have your high performers work from home."

Employers must put measures into place to track progress. "However you keep your employees accountable on a daily basis in the office, you need to keep people working at home accountable in the same way," says Ms. Maedel.

Bosses should also set parameters for being able to reach the employee at any point during their workday, decide whether the employee's working hours are flexible and whether they need to get pre-approval before working from home, says Ms. Maedel.

Employees who work at home for long periods must maintain a regular connection to the office. "Maybe they come in once a week for a regular meeting, or maybe they call in every week for a teleconference," says Ms. Woolf.

Both Ms. Maedel and Ms. Woolf emphasize that consistency is a must. Having a documented policy available to all staff on the rules around working from home sets the groundwork for consistency, she says.

In some cases, employers are offering the option of telecommuting to sweeten the prospect of longer days. "What's interesting is employees are being asked to work more hours and companies will offer the flexibility of working from home as a tradeoff," says Ms. Woolf.

Telecommuting by the numbers

1.4 million: Number of employees who worked at home in 2000

1.8 million: Number of employees who worked at home in 2008

11.2 per cent: Percentage of the Canadian work force who worked at home in 2008

Source: Statistics Canada