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work_from_home_weather(TNS)—There’s one thing my years of meteorological study have taught me, it’s that weather exists.

While weather is typically an outdoor phenomenon, it can have a major impact on our indoor workplaces, primarily during the winter months, when snow or frigid temperatures bring about the dreaded school cancellations. Parents are cast into child-care dilemmas that regularly lead to the question: Can I work from home today?

In the Chicago area last week, the city’s public schools and many suburban school districts canceled classes for two days in a row because of wicked wind chills. Such sudden schedule changes immediately place workers into two groups: those whose jobs require them to be present and those who can effectively do their work from home.

The folks who can’t work remotely—restaurant and retail employees, for example—have little choice but to take sick or vacation days or hope someone can switch shifts. But many people who can perform their work perfectly well outside the office still run into trouble with bosses or managers who have not embraced working from home.

This baffles me, but it’s true.

“It’s gotten much better, but there are still a lot of employers who just don’t like telecommuting,” says Alison Green, a management consultant and author of the Ask A Manager blog. “I think there are bad managers out there who don’t have effective ways of measuring whether someone’s actually doing the work. And that makes them feel they need people in the office.”

According to consulting firm Global Workplace Analytics, which has extensively studied telework and workplace flexibility, 2.6 percent of the American workforce (not including the self-employed) telecommute at least half the time.

But there’s no accurate measure of how many companies allow workers the flexibility of working remotely when personal issues make it hard for them to be in the office. I would guess the percentage is high, and there’s no question the trend lines are moving in the direction of greater work-from-home acceptance.

“Flexibility is certainly not yet at 100 percent, but a lot of companies now are more flexible when things come up, they definitely have more wiggle room,” says Neil Shah, founder and CEO of The WFC Group, a workforce management consulting company in Chicago. “We ran into this situation the last few days with school closings. People’s stress increases tremendously when things like this happen. As an employer we try to make sure we’re aware of that and we find ways to lessen that stress. We get it. We understand that that’s what you need to do, and we think flexibility is a very important concept.”

I had to put the phone down for a moment to properly applaud Shah’s way of thinking.

“We are big advocates of the work-life balance piece of it—you need to have that to be successful,” Shah says. “If you can provide that platform for your workforce, I think there’s a higher level of motivation and engagement across the board. I’ve been in situations where that environment was not there, and all it really did was frustrate people. These organizations invest all this money into their workforce and then cling to policies that lead to a very high turnover.”

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that about half the U.S. workforce has a job that would be compatible with at least part-time telecommuting. So even if working from home isn’t a regular arrangement, there are a slew of workers who, when faced with something like a school cancellation, should be able to go about their workday remotely.

For salaried workers, this kind of flexibility is well within the boundaries of employment law.

“Hourly employees, if they’re not able to come in, may need to use paid time off or vacation time to protect their income, or they may need to try to adjust their schedules,” says Peter Gillespie, an employment law attorney at the firm Fisher & Phillips. “But if you’re a salaried, overtime-exempt employee, generally under federal law the employer has the obligation to pay the salary if the employee works part of the week, meaning just because an employee isn’t able to come in for a day doesn’t mean the employer can say, ‘You don’t get paid for that day.’ The mindset should be that they’re getting paid for some work weeks when they need to work longer and for some weeks when they don’t necessarily work as much every day, so long as they’re being productive and the work is getting done, it shouldn’t matter.”

Perhaps more importantly—and this applies to both hourly and salaried workers—is the goodwill that comes from a boss or manager doing everything possible to help employees who are in a bind.

“Think about how this kind of thing can increase people’s morale and loyalty,” Green says. “These situations can be really frustrating, but people are willing to go the extra mile down the line when they feel they’re being trusted.”

She says managers who aren’t comfortable letting people work from home might ask themselves whether the problem is with the employees or with their own management style. Have you sat down with your employees and developed an understanding of each person’s role, what your expectations are and how you define success?

“If you have a clear picture of what success is, you’re going to have a pretty good idea of what that person is doing and whether he or she is getting the job done, regardless of where they’re working,” Green says.

These are good things to consider as the cold winter months drag on. Because, as a wise me once says, weather exists. And I expect that to continue.

©2015 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC