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Two Prominent Companies Ax Work At Home Flexibility

First, it was Yahoo! demanding that all employees report to the office. Then Best Buy deep-sixed its groundbreaking work-at-home program for corporate employees.

— The news coverage has been speculative, at best, about Yahoo!’s move, since the company didn’t officially announce any change publicly. But a leaked memo from the head of human resources at the company said, according to All Things D, an online portal of The Wall Street Journal: “… it is critical that we are all present in our offices” and “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”  It’s clear the firm has put a crimp in work-at-home options for employees.

— Meanwhile, Cnet broke the news that Best Buy’s “Results Only Work Environment,” which “allowed employees to set their own hours and work from anywhere as long as they got the job done,” also is a thing of the past. The news report said: “Telecommuting is not completely ruled out as an option for the company’s 4,000 non-store employees, but workers will need to seek managerial approval first.”

The disappointed, sarcastic, and disapproving reactions on blogs and news story comments would suggest that Americans still want and expect work-at-home to be an option. Wrote one commenter on the Yahoo! All Things D story:

“The year is 2013, not 1980. People expect to be able to work from home because the expenses for both worker and employer are much less. Memos like this speak to the need to control people using the outdated cubicle model. It will backfire.”

Both Yahoo!’s And Best Buy’s decision are not balanced. Perhaps some or many of the people they hired were not right for either remote work or office work. Scores of companies have successfully managed office and remote workers. IBM is a perfect example with 40 percent of its staff working remotely quite successfully.

Today many more companies are offering unprecedented levels of access to flexible work arrangements to keep and find the best talent. An article in our industry’s ProgramBusiness.com noted that 47 percent of Aetna’s 35,000 employees work at home in one way or another.

Seeing news coverage like this makes me realize how far we have come in the insurance industry, and it points out three lessons:

1) Work arrangements have to work – for the employer, for the work, and for the worker. If I had $100 for every New Yorker who grew tired of a commute to Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad and found a job closer to home, I could buy a new Mercedes. Many of the bosses at these same companies face the same pressures, so they are the leaders who are allowing or even exploring these types of arrangements.

2) The financial incentives for flexible work arrangements are here to stay. The significant (and, of course, rising) costs of fuel, office space, utilities, employee salaries, technology, and health care are pushing employers to focus on flexible ways to get their work done for less cost. Twenty years ago, due to many of these same trends, corporate employers began using contractors en masse in lieu of hiring permanent employees.

What we’re seeing here in recent years with flexible work arrangements is a similar economy-wide trend to deal with these same pressures. In Aetna’s case, for example, the company states it has been able to reduce its real estate requirements by 2.7 million square feet of office space through telecommuting.

3) Work at home arrangements aren’t just about costs. In some regions around the country, even in heavily populated areas, there simply aren’t the right qualified people available for the insurance work that needs to be done. For example, WAHVE supports an independent agency in New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states in the country. This agency simply could not find an experienced insurance professional to provide processing work and other support for the agency.

The good news (and the advantage) for insurance agencies like this one is that processing business in New Jersey on a agency management system looks the same on a screen in New Jersey as it does in Alaska or Texas or Kansas. So the solution for these types of agencies can be to use remote workers to tie in to the agency management system to get the job done.

– Sharon Emek, Ph.D.
Founder and CEO
WAHVE