Benefits Column is Good for Business

Superstorm Sandy brought devastation to many East Coast-based organizations. Employers with telework programs, however, weathered the storm better than most.

Monday, November 19, 2012
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Superstorm Sandy hit my town in Connecticut a year to the day after the 2011 nor'easter knocked out power and cable services for as long as 15 days. Needless to say, no one had to tell us how to prepare for our second storm-of-the-century.

This time, however, we were more fortunate than many in the greater New York tri-state region, including those located in my Staten Island hometown and beloved New Jersey shoreline. I was without power and Internet services for less than 24 hours and, ultimately, my home served as a remote workplace for friends without Wi-Fi.

Last year, I dedicated my column to supporting employees when the lights go out. And all of those lessons still apply to Sandy's survivors.

The story for me this year is how businesses responded to yet another weather-related disaster. As Harvard Medical School's Ron Kessler pointed out in a radio show I co-hosted this month, "One of the ... things companies need to take into account is their overall corporate risk profile. The cost of one accident ... overshadows the ROI of all its employee-benefits programs."

Superstorm Sandy was not an accident, but it caused significant business disruption for some companies. Certainly, the financial impact will overshadow any gains made from health and wellness program strategies.

The two-day closure of the New York Stock Exchange alone was a sobering example of the impact of an untested business continuity plan coupled with "U.S. financial markets [that] are too dependent on the equipment and personnel in Manhattan."

Why talk about business continuity plans in an employee benefits column? Well-designed telework policies and procedures were the keys to keeping many organizations - and even the federal government - open for business before and after Sandy's arrival.

So, while a good number of employers consider telework or telecommuting to be an employee benefit, it also puts a continuously-tested infrastructure in place for people like Brian Olsen, head of business continuity at Hartford, Conn.-based health insurer Aetna, Inc.

"The telework program provides the best of all worlds for me," says Olsen. During an event like Superstorm Sandy, he leveraged the telework structure to redistribute the workforce. For example, the call centers' centralized queue allowed Aetna to quickly redirect call volume. The company could also "plug-and-play" employees to different locations or help them team up with employees who had power.

Olsen explains that the use of telework is situational and the business makes the decision to "move to remote or move in."

"The challenge with a storm like Sandy is that you may have to rapidly deploy office-based employees to telework and telework employees to the office."

On the day Aetna closed some of its offices - including its home office - due to the storm, approximately 22,700 out of 34,000 employees worked. Essentially, there was no operational impact to the business.

In addition, when there isn't a crisis, the telework strategy allows Olsen to regularly test the business continuity plan and look for single points of failure.

Susan Williams, a manager of HR policy and compliance at Aetna, was involved in the development of the company's telework program from its inception in the mid-1990's. In fact, Williams is now one of the approximately 40 percent of Aetna employees who work remotely.

Williams offers a series of logical steps to help other HR leaders and their companies establish or expand their telework policy.

First, realize the creation of a robust program is going to take a number of years. The best initial strategy is to start small with either selected individuals or small offices.

If you choose to begin with a pilot focused on individuals, it helps if they live in a drivable radius (within 100 miles) to an office. This tactic allows employees to come into a physical location if they have equipment problems or need to work out of the office for a period of time.

From the beginning, you need to involve a broad representation of people across the organization, including human resources, information technology, real estate and the business units and divisions. Aetna started its process through the project management office before it became the responsibility of a cross-sectional advisory council.

"It's also critical to document successes and inventory little victories," Williams explains, "so you can overcome the 'fear factor' " - the concern managers have when they can't physically see their employees and aren't certain they're fully productive.

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Williams suggests when a manager exhibits apprehension about allowing employees to telework - and the victory list doesn't address the hesitancies - that the HR executive brings into the discussion another manager from a business unit that's experienced success.

Aetna chooses to give managers flexibility in how to implement the telework policies. For example, the company has guidelines regarding how employees should handle work disruptions relative to both making up time and taking paid-time off. Managers may use discretion in approving something different than the stated policy.

Work groups, business units and divisions need to rethink how to include the participation of remote workers in meetings. And rewards and recognition programs need to be redesigned. Williams explains that managers can't rely on pizza parties to celebrate successes within a team when a third of employees work remotely.

Aetna's telework program has been in place long enough that it revamped its wellness program and now offers a "virtual wellness center," which is available to both remote and office-based employees.

Collaborative technology such as live meeting, instant messaging and screen-sharing capabilities among employees in different locations goes a long way in reducing the physical separation of co-workers. So, too, does an employee resource group such as Aetna's telework community ERG, which provides support among associates working in a similar situation.

Williams advises that, over time, the telework program can become easier to use when "great self-service tools" are available to employees. These tools can include the ability to order equipment online.

Sometimes, Williams says, you receive unanticipated benefits from the telework program. These perks include using telework as reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.

Aetna also found through a survey done with Cornell University that remote workers reported higher employee engagement than their office-based colleagues.

Better employee engagement and a stronger business continuity plan are two compelling reasons for HR executives to lead their companies toward embracing a telework program.

It turns out that telework can both build goodwill and be good for business.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett and on her video blog, The Work.Love.Play.Daily.



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