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Vol. 41, No. 6

Yes, no, maybe so: Bar associations vary on the idea of telecommuting

by Dan Kittay

There’s a lot of interest in telecommuting in the bar association world, if a recent request on a few NABE Listservs for information about the practice is any indication. The query yielded responses from some bars with detailed policies, some that don’t allow this work arrangement, some whose staff members wish it were allowed, and numerous others that were looking for information themselves.

Telecommuting, also called teleworking, involves employees working one or more days at home, and using computers and other technology to communicate with colleagues, members and vendors. That is the easy part, in most cases—and in fact, one thread that came up a lot in the query responses was that, for many bars, the technology that could enable such an arrangement is already in place, and may have been successfully tested during isolated instances when someone had to telecommute for a short time.

Dealing with the people involved, and deciding which job functions can be handled remotely (if any—which depends in part on the bar culture), can be more complicated.

Again, responses varied considerably. Some who responded share their thoughts in this article; for additional points of view, please see “From an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to a firm ‘no’: Additional thoughts on telecommuting,” also in this issue.

ASAE shares some important points to consider

As the chief administrative officer for the American Society of Association Executives, Robert M. Skelton sees a wide variety of telecommuting arrangements in member associations, including one where the executive director is based in Washington, D.C., the headquarters is in Fairbanks, Alaska, and staff is spread throughout the rest of the country.

One of the biggest factors driving the push for telecommuting is cost, Skelton says: “You’re not paying for office space for those staff who aren’t going to be in the office.” In cases where people are working part time out of the office, associations can have office-sharing arrangements to decrease their footprint, Skelton says, noting that for most associations, rent is the second largest cost, after salaries.

Another big benefit, he adds, especially for associations in large metro areas, is reducing or eliminating the commute for employees, leading to increased quality of life and higher employee satisfaction.

One of the potential downsides to telecommuting is making sure that the employees who do work from home are capable of being effective in a situation without direct supervision, Skelton says. “You have to have managers who can manage those relationships well,” he believes. “It’s not every manager, and not every employee who can really thrive in that environment.”

A major potential source of distraction for a telecommuter is if there is a small child or children at home. “One of the things we require with any telecommuting arrangement we set up internally, is that the staff member have daycare if they have small children,” Skelton says. “You cannot work full time and take care of a small child full time at the same time.”

Some other factors to consider when setting up telecommuting, according to Skelton:

  • Not all positions are suited for remote working. Receptionists, mail workers, and event staff are some obviously bad candidates.
  • For associations with employees in other states, there may be tax implications, as having an employee who lives in a certain state may be considered having a presence there, which could lead to taxes in that state.
  • There should be ongoing evaluations, to be sure the employee and supervisor are comfortable with the arrangement.

A look at two evolving, longstanding arrangements

The most recent ABA data on bars that offer telecommuting is from 2014. At that time, 42 percent of unified state bars, 35 percent of voluntary state bars, and 26 percent of local bars offered telecommuting of some sort.

Many of the bars that allow telecommuting originally did so because an existing employee moved out of the area, and the bar wanted to maintain the working relationship. At the Colorado Bar Association, Susie Klein worked as an editor for The Colorado Lawyer for three years, before her husband was transferred to Washington, D.C.

Initially, Klein and the CBA decided to have a temporary arrangement for her to continue editing, until the bar could find a permanent solution. Things worked well, and “the job morphed into this work-from-home position that I’ve had for the last 10 years,” Klein says. She is now managing editor.

Jobs such as editor are typically easier to adapt to telecommuting, many say. As long as she has a good Internet connection, Klein is able to communicate with her work colleagues as well as article authors, and participate in meetings by phone. While there were some technology challenges when she began telecommuting, the widespread availability of high-speed Internet, along with messaging and work-sharing software, make for seamless interaction with the bar.

From the bar’s perspective, the arrangement works well, says Heather Folker, director of communications and marketing. Klein generally comes to Denver at least twice each year, and Folker schedules an editorial board meeting to coincide with those visits. Folker says her only real concern about the telecommuting arrangement is that, since Klein has limited face-to-face contact with colleagues, it's important that she feel connected to the bar and its staff. That’s one reason Klein’s visits typically include some after-work socializing as well.

Perhaps the longest distance and longest lasting telecommuting arrangement belongs to the Bar Association of Erie County. Bonnie O’Brian was director of communications at the BAEC’s Buffalo, N.Y., headquarters for 11 years. After moving to Seattle and working at other jobs for several years, O’Brian resumed her position with BAEC as a telecommuter in 2003.

The bar had always liked her work, and needed someone to serve in the recently vacated communications position while the bar considered its options, says Executive Director Katherine Bifaro. While O’Brian was not prepared to move back east, she did agree to edit the bar’s newspaper remotely.

Eventually, Bifaro asked O’Brian to work full time as a telecommuter as director of communications, and O’Brian agreed.

She has a phone in her home that is connected to the BAEC phone system, so callers can dial the main BAEC number and ask for her extension and have the call go to her. The biggest concern O’Brian faced was the time difference between East and West Coast, which created a gap between when she and BAEC started their respective workdays. O’Brian generally works from 8:30 to 4:30 Pacific time, which means most days she has about five “shared hours” when she and the rest of the BAEC staff are working. Most of the time, it works well, she says, and for emergencies, she is always on call, as she would be if working onsite.

What’s your policy? Make sure to spell it out

ASAE’s Skelton and others say a key to a successful telecommuting situation is to have policies in place, and an agreement that spells out the conditions of the arrangement.

For the Idaho State Bar, which has six of its 30 employees working from home at least one day a week, the process for approving who may telecommute includes having employees submit photos of their workspace and acknowledge their responsibility for any tax consequences, utility bills and compliance with local zoning requirements arising from telecommuting.

The policy was created in 2012 as a result of an employee request, which led to a full discussion of the subject, says Executive Director Diane Minnich. “We started with, ‘Is this something we want to do? Can do? How does it affect the workplace?’” An early determination was that it would not be offered to anyone on a full-time basis. Most employees who telecommute do so for one or two days per week, with three being the maximum allowed, Minnich says.

Both executive and administrative staff are eligible to telecommute, depending on their job responsibilities. Employees are trusted to keep track of their time accurately, and have their work output monitored by supervisors the same as if they were in the office, Minnich adds.

For some bars, nothing beats being there

Some bars that have examined whether to offer telecommuting have looked at the potential complications of the arrangements and decided that they outweigh the potential benefits. At the Columbus Bar Association, a request from an employee led to extensive research on the topic by staff leaders and the then-president, who was a labor and employment attorney, says Jill Snitcher McQuain, the bar’s executive director.

One of the complicating factors was ensuring security for when remote employees logged in to the computer system. Another was the thorny question of when to say yes to such an arrangement and when to say no—and ultimately, “no” turned out to be the answer in general.

“I thought, ‘You know what? At the end of the day we’re in the people business, and I need you guys to be here,” McQuain recalls. “I need you interacting with our members. I need you to be part of the culture here, and I think you lose some of that when you’re telecommuting all of the time.’”

The CBA settled on allowing executive staff to work from home for up to five days per year, for reasons including needing to take care of repairs at home, caring for children, or doing work-related research in a quieter environment.

McQuain knows that other bars and businesses in general have successfully implemented telecommuting, but says she doesn't see the CBA revisiting the issue anytime soon.

“My bias is that the people who ask for it are the ones most likely to abuse it,” she says. “That’s my anecdotal observation.”