Insurance Weighs in on Working from Home

By | March 13, 2013

Working from home has become a hot topic following Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer’s announced plans in late February to bring telecommuters back into the office, and the issue is being taken up by some insurance firms, many of which already have some sort of telecommuting policies – there are even a few considering offering even more flexibility to workers.

Mayer’s announcement in late February was followed a week later by electronic retail chain Best Buys’ revelation that its 4,000 non-store employees taking advantage of its work-from-home program will have to get manager approval to work from home.

“It used to be a right about which a manager had no say. Now it’s a conversation,” Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman said in an email to media explaining the decision. “We believe in employee flexibility but are looking for it to come in the context of a conversation between that employee and their manager.”

Those decisions got hammered by critics of the cubicle experience who see the work-life balance trend as worthy of preservation. One of the most notable critics was British business giant Richard Branson, who immediately after Yahoo’s announcement criticized the struggling tech company’s policy change, and referred to it as a step backwards.

When asked for an update on the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based email provider’s new telecommuting policy Yahoo spokespersons were not interested in engaging the media any further on the matter.

“We don’t discuss internal matters,” Yahoo spokeswoman Lauren Armstrong replied in response to an email query about the policy. “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now.”

The company has been struggling for identity and market share. But Mayer, who was at Google for 13 years and has held a number of top leadership positions, has been brought on to give the company direction and possibly acquire other companies – the names OpenTable and Zynga have been brought up as possible targets by industry watchers.

Shares of Yahoo traded down .06 to $22.34 a share on Nasdaq on Wednesday, not far from their 52-week high, although the stock continues to get a lukewarm reception from analysts polled by Thompson/First Call.

Spokespersons for Best Buy were not immediately available for comment.

Many insurance companies have some form of human resources policies that enable at least small numbers of employees to work from home, and some companies are exploring adding to existing telecommuting programs.

Of course, at agencies there are likely a broader number among the employment ranks who can easily telecommute.

More than half of respondents to an ongoing poll on say some agency employees may work from home on occasion depending on their job. More than 7 percent say all agency employees are free to work from home, while roughly 37 percent say working from home usually isn’t an option.

One of the best known firms in the insurance business in Yahoo’s neck of the woods in California’s Silicon Valley, Fireman’s Fund, offers some of its employees the ability to work from home.

According to Suzanne Meraz, a spokeswoman for the company, 15 percent of Novato-based Fireman’s Fund employees work remotely. However, such flexible work arrangements must work for both the business and the individual employee, are subject to manager approval and they may be changed if needed due to business necessity, she said.

In short, it depends on the employee’s role within the company. That’s a common answer from insurers spoken with for this article. And that’s the same human resources policy at AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah Insurance Exchange, which has 3,500 employees.

“Some of our employees are able to work at home,” spokeswoman Wendy Layne said. “It depends on their role. We do have employees who do work at home, but whether or not they work at home or not is very much role dependent.”

California’s State Compensation Insurance Fund, which employs more than 4,000 workers, is considering expanding its work-from-home program.

“We are exploring a telework policy,” said Jennifer Vargen, San Francisco-based State Fund’s chief spokesperson. “We are continuing to explore and address areas and positions where telework would make sense for both State Fund and employees.”

Vargen said the idea is to maintain State Fund’s competitiveness by being able to attract and retain quality employees.

Currently in place is a telework policy for State Fund field representatives, including loss control representatives and marketing representatives, according to Vargen said.

“We have a telework policy for them, and they work out of their homes,” she said.

According to a study by the Society for Human Resources Management, after slight declines between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of organizations offering some form of telecommuting is once again heading upward.

“These low-cost initiatives can lead to increased employee job satisfaction, lower turnover and lower insurance costs,” the report’s authors write.

The report calls for U.S. companies to have a modern workplace flexibility policy that meets the needs of both employers and employees.

“As opposed to a one-size-fits-all mandate for all employers, we support a new approach that reflects diverse employee needs and preferences, as well as differences among work environments, representation, industries and organizational sizes,” the report states “This workplace flexibility policy should support employees in balancing their work, family and personal obligations and, at the same time, provide certainty, predictability and stability to employers.”

Employers who want the best talent and the most production for their buck should reconsider any policies that discourage working from home, said Sharon Emek, founder of WAHVE, who often speaks on insurance workforce and retirement topics. WAHVE (Work At Home Vintage Employees) is a remote contract staffing business.

“A lot of the carriers now have people working remotely,” Emek said. “It makes sense. They need to find talent, they need to keep talent.”

Like Branson, Emek believes Mayer’s decision on Yahoo’s telecommuting policy is counterintuitive.

“I think the issue with Yahoo is that they think one size fits all,” she said. “Even if everyone comes back into the office it doesn’t mean they’ll share and collaborate throughout the company.”

In fact, Yahoo may lose quality talent over the matter, Emek said, adding, “There are a lot of talented moms who would appreciate the opportunity to work from home and have that work-life balance.”

WAHVE formed nearly four years ago to tap retiring and near retiring talent to outsource to insurance firms around the country, so all employees work from home to fill the need of firms who don’t need a body in the office.

“They understand that they need talent and talent is not always in their backyard,” Emek said, adding that she has received high marks on the at-home worker’s she’s placed. “The response we get is that they are so productive.”

What makes them so productive? That’s a question Emek answered without hesitation: no office interruptions.

“They accomplish much more in the day because they have no interruptions,” she said. “Some people aren’t productive in the office. You just think they are productive because they are sitting in the office.”

She wrote off potential at home distractions, such as the suggestion that here may be a temptation to turn on the television.

“Do you watch TV while working?” she asked, as if such a suggestion was outlandish. Then she noted that all WAHVE’s 100 contract employees are “professionals” with proven track records that she has carefully vetted before being placed with a company.

Of course one of the prime reasons employees in traffic-congested, veritable commuter warzones like the Silicon Valley have for wanting to work at home is to end their suffering via commute.

A report on urban mobility from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute released in February showed increased traffic congestion is forcing workers to build extra time into their daily commutes, and in the more populous metropolitan areas that extra time can be an hour or longer.

That study calculated that traffic congestion cost U.S. commuters $121 billion in wasted time and fuel in 2011, and by 2020 the average U.S. driver will spend an additional seven hours in traffic each year and waste six more gallons of gas.

The financial and insurance industries in particular may be sectors that lend themselves to offering telecommuting positions, but having a blanket policy may not be the best way to go about offering such flexible work benefits, said John Challenger, with Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“There are probably many job categories in the insurance and financial industries that are conducive for telecommuting,” Challenger said.

But it is certainly not as simple just making sure employees have a phone, a computer and high speed internet, he cautioned.

“Just because a certain job is compatible with telework, does not mean the person holding that job is,” he said. “Not every worker has the discipline and self-motivation to work from home on a regular basis, which makes it nearly impossible to have a blanket policy. Every manager must determine whether telecommuting will be permitted on a case-by-case basis. And, if allowed, it must be continually monitored to ensure that the quantity and quality of the employee’s output does not drop off.”

On the other hand, telecommuters themselves need to be cautious about the benefits of working remotely, and considering giving supervisors regular updates on accomplishments and tasks completed.

“If you are within commuting distance of your employer, you should find a way to make into the office once or twice a week,” Challenger said. “If you are a true remote worker, perhaps not even in the same state as your employer, you should discuss whether your employer would pay for you travel and work one week each quarter in the primary office.”

Of course, it would be remiss in any insurance-related discussion not to try and tackle the liabilities posed by working from home.

In one of the latest workers’ compensation cases regarding working from home Court of Appeals of Oregon ruled for a woman who tripped over her dog while working from home, Mary S. Sandberg vs. J. C. Penney Co. Inc. The court ruled in 2011 that she worked from home as a condition of employment and workers’ comp benefits were to be paid. The decision stated: “If, as a condition of employment, an employer exposes workers to risks outside of the employer’s control, injuries resulting from the risks can be compensable.”

Mark Noonan, managing principal of casualty at New York, N.Y.-based Integro Insurance Brokers, said keeping workers’ compensation in mind is key when designing work-from-home programs.

“Employers who allow or require employees to work remotely have to assume that injuries that occur during the employee’s work may be compensable,” Noonan said. “Employers must design their telecommuting programs carefully in order to minimize workers’ compensation issues. Telecommuters face the same risk factors as employees at the office — work-related injuries and illnesses, fire and electrical safety, and ergonomics. Employers are responsible for providing a safe and healthy working environment for all their employees, no matter their work location.”

Along those lines, it should also be noted that a typical homeowner’s policy limits coverage to $2,500 total for items used primarily for business purposes. Aside from PC’s used primarily for work, pretty much any of the typical home-based office equipment falls under those limits, including filing cabinets, office furniture, printers.

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