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Disability and Disability Insurance

Teleworking Evolution: Factoring in a Mobile Workforce

Marcia Carruthers | November 9, 2013

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The virtual workforce has changed the way people work and will continue to help define the workplace landscape in the future. Korn/Ferry International reported recently that 77 percent of companies now allow some form of telecommuting. Despite recent setbacks with the demise of the Yahoo and Best Buy programs, the trend of telework is stronger than ever, providing benefits to both employers and their employees. According to the Telework Research Network, the number of regular US telecommuters is expected to grow 69 percent by 2016 to 4.9 million. It is clear that the horse has left the barn, and there is no going back.

However, in order to implement a successful program, it is vital to fully understand the risks as well as the rewards, develop a strong policy and process, and examine your workforce demographics to ensure that all parties will derive the intended benefits and avoid potential liabilities.

Statistics Set the Stage for Expanded Use

More and more organizations are seeing the financial, operational, risk management, and human resource value of having a remote workforce. Based on the "State of the American Workplace" study by Gallup in 2013, remote workers logged in more hours than on site (46 hours for remote verses 42 hours per week) and were more engaged (read: productive) with 32 versus 28 percent. On the flip side, remote workers were also less likely to be disengaged (18 percent) versus on-site workers (20 percent). Other studies show that decision-makers agree (59 percent) that telework leads to more productive workers and that 37 percent less absenteeism occurs.

In addition to operational benefits, there are employee satisfaction and work balance advantages as well. According to a Staples study, 75 percent of leaders say they see happier employees with telecommuting, and 48 percent of workers say they are less stressed, up from 25 percent in 2012.


Many benefits can result from a well-designed telework program. The most commonly cited advantages include:

  • Improved employee satisfaction—Call center employees working from home increased their productivity by 13 percent and were more satisfied, according to Stanford University. Fifty-four percent of employees in a national survey last year noted improved work-life balance.
  • Reduced absenteeism—According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, working remotely reduces time away from work.
  • Increased productivity and maximized output—According to Forbes, on average, only 5 hours of real work is done in an 8-hour workday in a normal office setting, so working from home can potentially capture those 3 hours plus commuting time. University of Texas at Austin reported in 2012 that people who work from home added 5 to 7 hours to their workweek compared to those who work solely in the office. Often, employees feel they want to willingly "give back" to their employers for the opportunity and benefit of having increased flexibility.
  • Reduced costs—This includes items such as office space and savings on utilities. This works especially well for data entry, customer service, sales, marketing, claims administration, graphic design, or Web development.
  • Reduced relocation costs—When there is no need to move employees, it saves companies money and offers employees less personal disruption and costs.
  • Increased ability to attract the best talent—This is true both across the United States and internationally. People with more cutting-edge skills are in high demand and have more opportunity to work from a location that fits them best. Generation X, Generation Y, and Millennials often see this benefit as a deal maker or breaker.
  • Stronger employee retention—Offering a more flexible work schedule is a great way to retain talent and improve morale.
  • Improved opportunities for accommodations—Teleworking programs can help employers assist employees with disabilities and support return-to-work programs. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that it viewed telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation in its enforcement of the Americans with Disability Act.
  • Supporting environmental objectives—Telecommunication can save fuel, reduce air pollution, and eliminate commute time.
  • Working healthier—Besides reducing the spread of disease, working from home encourages regular exercise, less stress, and better health.
  • Ensuring operational continuity—In case of weather, riot, strike, earthquake, and other disruptions, telecommunicating can keep the company operating.
  • Supporting round-the-clock operational opportunities—Telecommunicating helps provide expanded customer service and sales opportunities.
  • Quicker response time—With telecommuting, less time is wasted (commuting, waiting periods, etc.).
  • Other benefits—There are fewer distractions, the ability to be near children, opportunities to complete short household chores, less office gossip, etc.


These programs are not without drawbacks (for both the employer and employee), and each of the following should be considered before implementing a teleworking program.

  • Inability to set boundaries—It is difficult for supervisors to oversee productivity, and the potential exists for employees to be overworked. Setting and monitoring work hours, especially for hourly paid employees who are subject to the federal wage and hour law, is key. Training supervisors in virtual team management with emphasis on setting clear expectations and project goals is important both virtually and on site.
  • Poor choice of substitute work settings—Public places can be disruptive or unsafe.
  • Disengaged from organizational culture—This is especially true where creative or collaborative endeavors may demand face-to-face engagement.
  • Auto liability exposure—An employee could have an accident while driving on business, or the trip could be construed as business. Companies should confirm sufficient auto liability coverage.
  • Workers compensation—Preventative measures should be implemented with training and site inspections just as you do for on-site workers. Setting work hours and establishing a log-in system can better define working versus nonworking hours.
  • Security issues—Equipment and computers should be set up with secure connections, firewalls, virus scanners, and other security measures.
  • Ergonomic exposures—These can arise with badly designed workspaces. Purchasing the right equipment and employing ergonomic assessments can avoid accidents and injuries.
  • Third-party risks—These may arise if an employee receives visitors for work-related matters, so proper insurance coverage must be in place.
  • Cyber-risk—This potential may be an issue with intellectual property loss or disclosure of confidential customer information.
  • Career opportunities—These may be affected (out of sight, out of mind), and employees may receive poorer performance evaluations, lower raises, and fewer promotions.

The Nature of Work and the Need To Keep Workers "Actively" at Work

Work is what we do, not where we are. Work is not defined by a physical location to which people travel every day. Increasingly, people have more flexibility in where, when, and how they work. Because of shifting demographics, the ubiquity of technology, social media, diversity, and globalization, the face of the workforce has evolved into a more seamless process that requires less in terms of brick and mortar or human strength. It is now more dependent on communication, collaboration, and analytical power. Human interaction, creativity, and productivity can result from collaborative teams working remotely and internationally. What was just an experiment in the 1990s has evolved into a more refined process with known limitations, as well as attractive benefits.

The Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) launched a think tank in 2011 to explore "the changing face of absence and productivity in the technological age" as a way to educate its members on the advantages as well as risks of employing a virtual workforce. The results of this dialogue, along with additional data, underscore the clear advantages of this flexible working arrangement, if combined with a strong set of procedures and processes to ensure optimum results. A set of best practices follows that can support and help manage a virtual workforce more effectively, underscoring the continual need to keep employees actively engaged and at work, both virtually and on site.

  • Establish clear policies on flexible work arrangements, including when, where, and how work can be conducted. Include definitions of "work" and "actively at work."
  • Utilize and adapt best practices in disability and absence management to meet the needs of teleworkers.
  • Develop manager toolkits to improve comfort and competency in managing remote teams.
  • Use social media and collaboration tools to foster connection and exchange of ideas. Establish a social media policy on appropriate usage and sharing.
  • Define appropriate use of ad hoc telecommuting in lieu of taking sick days when employees are unwell but not seriously ill.
  • Explore telehealth and telemedicine solutions to offer care and treatment resources to employees who don't require an in-person office visit.
  • Emphasize safety and ergonomics for on-site and remote workers to prevent injury, illness, and disability.
  • Implement technology tools for seamless and secure connections between remote locations and the home office.


Reducing real estate costs, improving energy efficiency, ensuring business continuity, and offering more flexibility to employees continue to drive growth of the virtual workforce. As employers implement and expand flexible work arrangements, formal policies must be established, and both benefits and risks must be weighed and addressed. Factoring in the ability to optimize a mobile workforce can have distinct benefits and afford companies a clear competitive advantage.

The virtual workforce has demonstrated that work is not merely a place to which people travel each day. Rather, it is an activity in which people can engage in a variety of settings. What matters most are the results achieved, attainment of the company's financial and productivity goals, and the satisfaction of employees.


"Telecommuting: A Legal Primer," Businessweek Online, March 20, 2000.

Kimberly Grimms, "Businesses Going to the Cloud: Will the Virtual Workforce be More Common in the Future," Dashburst, August 30, 2013.

Tristan Lejuene, "Survey: Telework options still growing," Employee Benefit News, April 2, 2013.

"Virtual Workforce: The Changing Face of Absence and Productivity in the Technological Age," Disability Management Employer Coalition, June 2011.

"3 Ways To Take Advantage Of The Virtual Workforce," Forbes, March 25, 2013.

"Telecommuting: Benefits and Potential Liability," HUB Connects, October 2, 2013.

Diane Stafford, "Telecommuting: Working from home getting new scrutiny," Kansas City Star, March 5, 2013.

Ed Frauenheim, "Reflecting re: Flexing," Workforce Management, June 2013.

Marcia Carruthers, MBA, ARM, CPDM, is cofounder and chairman of the Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC), a San Diego–based nonprofit trade association providing educational resources to employers in the area of disability, absence, health, and productivity. For information, visit

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