Tag Archives: telecommuting

Claims Industry Set for Telecommuting

Insurance carriers and claim professionals deal with various catastrophes each year, so it was only fitting that when COVID-19 struck they were some of the first prepared to revert to “emergency work from home mode.”

With many other industries trying to determine how (and if) their workers can take on remote duties, the insurance world led the way with flexibility and (for the most part) ordered adjusters to telecommute so they would not miss a beat of their daily workload. 

This trillion-dollar industry is fairly secure in most crises (the popular mantra being that “everyone needs insurance.”) Understood are the IT capabilities needed in advance and the supervisor’s faith in employees, as they’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. It was as easy as a keystroke from insurance upper management to keep workers from driving to their respective claim centers with their laptops and instead plugging in at home and being ready to go. 

Some insurance companies were first to respond in the U.S. by canceling all in-person (unnecessary) meetings and going virtual. They left some of their fellow businesses they share office space with in the dust as those other companies continued to mull over their options (or until the point of being bound by local government orders). Carriers have, for the most part, been eager to protect their workers from risk (isn’t that what insurance is known for?) A possible hazard to staff meant a swift and immediate decision to work from home. 

Many carriers have realized the benefits of this arrangement, and even that many employees may put in more hours when working at home, saving themselves a tiresome commute (the average worker in the U.S. commutes over four hours a week, and some high-traffic areas require much more than that). 

See also: Moral Imperative for the Insurance Industry  

Most carriers also subscribe to the notion of in-office safety, encouraging those who are sick to work remotely, whereas some organizations may suggest workers come in or otherwise use a paid time off (PTO) day (few employees are pleased with that option as the average PTO days per year that Americans receive are quite low compared with other countries – another conversation, however!).

Many articles have been recently published with “work from home” tips; below are some of the more applicable to insurance industry professionals:

IF Insurance has penned a column called “How to work from home safely and efficiently?” It discusses an important topic in claims as it suggests that “Remote work provides several benefits, such as the possibility to focus deeply on specific tasks that require uninterrupted concentration.” For that large litigation claim file with extensive injuries, this makes much sense; fewer interruptions makes it easier to focus on complex claims. Some other useful tips of the article include letting family members know you need to work in peace and keeping an eye on ergonomics and the setup at home (is that monitor at the correct level?). Planning your breaks with a clear start and end time is also key. Remember to keep in touch with colleagues, and don’t isolate yourself completely!

Working From Home Can Mean You Never Stop Working” is a recent piece from Philadelphia Magazine that reminds us all to keep a better work-life balance while doing so and setting rituals for logging on and off while not falling victim to some of the various pitfalls. Remember to move around so as not sit in one spot all day. Have a list of your priorities for the day and use noise canceling headphones if needed to minimize distractions.

See also: Claims: Beyond the ‘Moment of Truth’  

Arch Daily’s website discusses tips for architects adjusting to the new experience of working from home. Largely, these professionals are used to collaborating with others in an office setting and now need to learn how to use digital technology to replicate those interactions. The article offers very useful information for experts in this field (and all others) to adapt to the times we face.

Will other industries learn from insurance and be well-equipped in the future? 

Or will the world change and move drastically to remote working after realizing some of its benefits? And is it really any surprise that insurance carriers are setting the example? 

After all, insurance and risk management by definition set out to identify, evaluate and prioritize risks and apply the use of resources to minimize the impact of unfortunate events (like right now).

4 Ways to Manage Remote Workers

Very few entrepreneurs can go from idea to success without a team of people supporting their projects. Besides hiring people in-house for human resources, marketing, production and service jobs, they may need to hire virtual employees and contractors to fill these positions. Either way, they need to create and foster a team-based environment to create a feeling of accountability and responsibility within the shared goal of success.

Creating a team atmosphere can be very difficult with virtual staff, whether employees or contractors. It’s a growing issue because technology opens up so many options for people around the world to work together as a team. According to Gallup, as many as 37% of workers were telecommuting as of 2015.

But there’s more to teamwork than simply working together on the same project. Teamwork involves a sense of camaraderie, support, respect and cohesiveness that can’t always be manufactured simply by the process of a shared project.

See also: The Keys to Forming Effective Teams  

Remote teams are not at a disadvantage in terms of overall performance. In a study conducted by MIT, it was found that teams of dispersed, remote workers often outperformed teams composed of workers within the same location. In part, this is due to the increased productivity that employees and contractors enjoy while working on their own, within their own ideal environment.

But to truly harness that productivity, entrepreneurs with dispersed teams must learn to effectively manage those teams and create a sense of teamwork within them. This can be done by:

  1. Having at least one face-to-face or screen-to-screen meeting. Even virtual face-to-face communication, such as through sites like Skype, helps build relationships and foster trust within the team. People like human contact.
  2. Encouraging collaboration. There is a difference between true collaboration and simply working together. Collaboration allows the team to get excited over a shared goal and inspiration, rather than simply doing their part to achieve an end to a project. Schedule occasional brainstorming chats or conference calls to foster a collaborative environment.
  3. Being clear about expectations, guidelines and standards. One of the best ways to undermine a team is to give every member a different set of rules to play by. Assume that your team members are going to talk and share information outside of scheduled meetings. Keep all their expectations, guidelines and standards uniform so there is no jealousy, competitiveness or implied favoritism.
  4. Giving the team a place to collectively debrief. Create a “virtual water cooler” so that remote employees and contractors can talk, exchange ideas and have an informal place to bond outside of meetings, Harvard Business Review suggests. You can do this by setting up a private group on a social networking platform or by using a program that has group chats or forums.

In a world where more and more employees are working remotely, it is important to take extra steps like these to create a team environment among people who don’t work in the same location. The result can be a sense of community and loyalty that cannot be quantified. Feeling like you’re part of the team leads to lower employee turnover, greater job satisfaction and higher productivity and creativity.

See also: How to Pick Your Insight Team  

So why not schedule that weekly team call? And allow the same technology that enables us to work apart to bring us together.

Are Our Working Patterns Outdated?

We didn’t need Dolly Parton to tell us that the classic 9-to-5 office routine can be a draining experience. The routine developed at a time when only one member of a household, typically the husband/father, held a full-time job; today, it is far more common for both partners in a relationship (regardless of gender) to work. So a 9-to-5 approach can create considerable challenges for those caring for children.

With childcare costs rising and services in short supply, workplace flexibility is increasingly important to working parents. Today, lack of workplace flexibility is pushing some parents out of the job market, which is especially bad for the still-struggling world economy. Women, in particular, are more likely to rank flexible working and work-life balance as important considerations, according to Aon’s 2015 Workforce Mindset Study. The same study found that a flexible work environment was the second most important factor in deciding whether to take a job, and a-top five-most-desired area for improvement. Confirming this, three of the top six factors causing full-time workers to quit their jobs were because of difficulties in maintaining a work-life balance, according to a recent EY global survey.

Now that the world’s working-age population is on the decline, according to the latest World Bank figures, maximizing the number of people on the job is set to become an increasing concern for governments. With the proportion of women participating in the workplace also in decline over the last decade and the percentage of women in the global labor force stagnant at around 40%, making it easier for women to work could add $12 trillion to global growth, according to McKinsey.

At the same time, the world is experiencing a growing global skills shortage, meaning that businesses are eager to discover new ways to attract and retain top talent.

Introducing more adaptable ways of working to enable people to fit their careers around their non-work commitments could be a solution to all these challenges — maximizing workforce participation, reducing gender inequality and boosting global growth and productivity. This is part of the reason why the U.K. introduced a legal right to request flexible working in 2014.

But with a combination of the rise of new technologies and an increasingly globalized workforce, there are a number of ways to reduce the barrier to workplace participation.

In-Depth

Thanks to the huge changes in communications technology that many have predicted could revolutionize the way we work in the 35 years since Dolly Parton’s hit song and film came out, there are now more alternatives to 9-to-5 than ever. Here are some of the most popular:

Flextime

Employees work a set number of hours over a given period but can choose when they start and finish work (usually agreed in advance with their employer).

  • Pros: Employees can arrange their workday around non-work commitments such as childcare; employers can increase the hours during which they have staff working without increasing their workforce.
  • Cons: Ensuring clear communication and arranging meetings when employees are on different flextime schedules can be complex, while employees’ preferred hours may not fit client/customer needs.

Telecommuting

Employees work remotely, using the internet and phones to stay in contact with their colleagues.

  • Pros: Reduces the need to maintain expensive office space; saves employees money and time on their commutes; gives maximum flexibility to workers to balance their work and private lives as they see fit.
  • Cons: Unless properly managed, telecommuting can reduce cohesiveness of teams; while vastly improved in recent years, the technology of remote working isn’t yet quite reliable enough, some feel; lack of visibility on colleagues’ availability can lead to frustration and delays.

Shift working 

Employees work at staggered times, allowing multiple people to use the same workspace at different times of the day and night, or on different days of the week.

  • Pros: Employees can work at times that suit them, while employers can maximize the efficiency of their workspaces by running facilities for longer.
  • Cons: Can be complex to administer.

Job sharing

Two or more people share a job, working part-time.

  • Pros: Enables employees with other commitments to continue to work and employers to benefit from different approaches to the same job.
  • Cons: Maintaining consistency and quality levels can be challenging for employers.

Staggered hours 

Workers have different start and finish times.

  • Pros: Employees can set their hours to suit their needs; employers can extend their effective hours of business operation.
  • Cons: Can lead to resentment from employees who are unable to secure the staggered hours that best suit them, and can hurt team coherence.

Compressed hours

Employees work their full-time hours in fewer than the normal number of days, such as working 40 hours in four 10-hour days rather than five 8-hour days.

  • Pros: Employees have more extended periods at home and save money on commuting; employers can cut office costs by closing down on the extra off day.
  • Cons: Interacting with other businesses and with clients/customers on a four-day schedule when they are working to a five-day week can be difficult, and potentially lead to negative impressions.

Annualized hours

A more extreme form of flextime, the employee has to work a set number of hours a year but has some flexibility over when she does it, usually with some guaranteed hours based around peak periods.

  • Pros: Significant employee flexibility, and some benefits for employers with strong seasonal variance in demand.
  • Cons: Can lead to long hours being worked at peak periods, which can lead to reduced quality of work.

Commissioned outcomes

Employees have no fixed hours, just set output targets/deliverables.

  • Pros: Employees have maximum flexibility.
  • Cons: May require considerable project management to ensure that both employer and employee remain happy with the value for money of the arrangement and that targets are hit.

Term-time working

Staff attend the workplace only during school term times, going on leave (or shifting to telecommuting or part-time work) during school holidays.

  • Pros: Enables parents to spend more time with their children and save on childcare.
  • Cons: Means the business has to fit in with school schedules rather than market needs.

Zero-hours contracts

Employees have no guarantee of a minimum number of working hours but are called on as needed and are paid only for the hours they work.

  • Pros: Maximum flexibility for employers and beneficial for some employees who are unable to commit to regular hours.
  • Cons: Have developed a bad reputation and can be seen as exploitative, as the timing of the available work tends to be set by employers rather than employees; can make maintaining quality and training levels difficult.

When considering whether flexible working could work for your company, remember there are potential downsides as well as upsides to most forms of flexible working. What could lead to benefits for one industry, job type or employee could be detrimental to others, and, as with any project, the key is to be clear on what the intended outcomes are and how to measure success.

Talking Points

“The 8-hour work day is not as effective as one would think. To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the day more endurable. At the same time, we are finding it hard to manage our private life outside of work.” – Linus Feldt, CEO, Filimundus

“The benefits of implementing flexible working policies are absolutely clear: happier staff, increased productivity and positive attitudes towards employer and business, to name but a few.” – Manesh Patel, senior benefits consultant, Aon Employee Benefits

“To boost employee freedom while also ensuring productivity, there are numerous flexible working options that businesses can offer… We have invested significantly in changing workplace culture, empowering employees to work from anywhere, while celebrating performance over presenteeism. These changes have led to great results, including a 20% boost in productivity and significant operational cost savings.” – David Langhorn, head of corporate and large enterprise, Vodaphone UK

“Bias toward stereotyping later starters means employees risk being inadvertently punished for taking advantage of flexible work time programs… Firms should be aware that simply introducing flexible hours on their own can have ramifications that should also be addressed. Indeed, without changes to their review procedures and other practices, they may ultimately be counterproductive.” – Sam Kai Chi Yam, assistant professor of management and organization, National University of Singapore Business School

This article originally appeared on TheOneBrief.com, Aon’s weekly guide to the most important issues affecting business, the economy and people’s lives in the world today.”

Further Reading

Why Workers’ Comp Claims Will Keep Falling

According to NCCI, the number of lost-times claims has been on a downward trend for more than a decade. With the exception of 2010, the number of lost-time claims has been declining over the past decade at a predictable rate of approximately 2% to 3% a year. The question, though, is whether this trend will continue.

Many analysts are predicting a rise in the number and frequency of lost-time workers’ compensation claims. This certainly may be true for 2014 as the U.S. is finally emerging from one of the longest recessions in history, coupled with the resurgence of the domestic oil and natural gas industry. However, this upward blip will have little, if any, effect on the long-term downward trend. I see several reasons why, except for 2014, this downward trend will continue:

Decline in manufacturing jobs

It should come as a surprise to no one that the U.S. economy has been shifting away from manufacturing jobs and toward a service-based economy. Even before to the Great Recession of 2008, manufacturing jobs were disappearing at an alarming rate. 2005 marked the first year since the Industrial Revolution that fewer than 10% of American workers were employed in manufacturing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturing employment fell from 19.6 million jobs in 1979 to 13.7 million jobs in 2007. Since 2007, the decline has only increased.

It stands to reason that as this trend away from manufacturing jobs continues, increased jobs in the service sector (where safety risks are often reduced) will lead to reduced lost-time workers’ compensation claims. Even if 2014 is an outlier, this trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Increased Social Security disability claims

Obviously, people who receive Social Security disability benefits are either out of the work force or have a reduced employment capacity. While the last three decades have revealed a sharp increase in the number of Americans receiving Social Security disability, this trend has increased even more sharply over the past few years.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the number of Americans receiving Social Security disability benefits is up a whopping 42% since 2004. The actual number of Americans receiving Social Security disability benefits hit almost 11 million in 2013.

Data for 2014 shows that the number of people filing new Social Security disability claims has leveled off. However, this plateau is above the levels seen before 2013, and there is no indication that the number of such claims will actually decrease soon.

Increased focus on safety

Over the past decade, we have seen the creation of an entirely new business sector — workplace safety. Driven by both the requirements of OSHA and the workers’ comp savings realized by reducing accidents, this workplace safety business sector continues to make strides.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,383 fatal work injuries occurred in 2012, with 3.2 injury deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. This is a drop from the 2011 figures of 4,693 fatal work injures and a rate of 3.5 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers.

According to Amanda Wood, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, OSHA has played a role in this downward trend, but the bulk of the credit for these improvements should go to employers who are focused on a safe work environment. “I think those numbers show business’s commitment to a safe workplace,” Wood said in a recent interview with Safety and Health Magazine.

Insurance carriers have also jumped on the safety bandwagon. In years past, I would often speak with “the” safety professional with an insurance carrier. Now, carriers have entire safety divisions and even local safety professionals in every major market — all dedicated to reducing the number of workplace accidents.

A changing definition of ‘workplace’

Two technology trends are truly changing our definition of the workplace — mobile technology and internet/cloud technology. Telecommuting is now commonplace. There was a day when claims adjusters were all working from regional call centers scattered across the country. Now, more often than not, a claims adjuster is working from his or her basement…as are scores of other 21st century workers.

If all of the data accessed by an employee is available in the cloud as opposed to an office mainframe computer, it makes sense to give workers flexibility on where the actual work is performed. Employers can lower costs by reducing the amount of real estate that must be owned or leased, while employees spend less time commuting — and the average number of claims related to workplace accidents keeps dropping.

Combine this trend with the current emphasis on mobile technology and one can easily see why “getting to work” may become as archaic as saying “saddle up the horse.” While using mobile technology does increase the opportunities for accidents while driving cars, this is more than offset by the physical removal of a large number of employees from company-owned “workplaces” that present even more opportunities for accidents and injuries.

Bottom line: Except for 2014, we should continue to see great strides in workplace safety and a continued downward trend in workplace injuries.

Telecommuting: The Future Office or an Insurance Nightmare?

Some employers view telecommuting as the cure-all to reduce fixed costs associated with real estate and to lure prospective employees to their workplace. Questions have persisted in the minds of some about the pros and cons of telecommuting. From the risk management standpoint we need to ask: Do we really understand the potential risk ramifications of telecommuting?

Telecommuting can be defined as the practice of employees working out of their private residences on a regular basis (once a week, twice a week, or more). With advances in technology (e-mail, computer networks, fax modems/machines, phone systems, etc.) telecommuting continues to increase at a steady rate. This virtual office atmosphere (being able to be connected essentially anywhere) has significantly increased the number of employees who can perform their jobs effectively from home. Tens of millions of Americans work at home on a regular basis.

The Benefits

  • Millions/billions saved in real estate costs including heating/cooling/electrical, etc.
  • Increased productivity to the company — employees are allowed to work at their own pace/environment with fewer interruptions.
  • Environmental benefits from less fuel consumed and less pollution.
  • Shorter commute times for those who still go to offices as a result of fewer vehicles on the road.
  • “Flex” time for family commitments and increased employee satisfaction.

It is also necessary to provide work-at-home employees with the same safe environment given to office employees. Each employer is required by OSHA to provide employees with a safe work environment regardless where the “work” is located. There was a proposal by OSHA to require home-office inspections but it was quickly dropped.

Challenging Insurance Issues

  • When are (are not) employees working?
  • If an employee slips and falls, was the employee working or taking out the trash?
  • What happens if an employee goes to the grocery store during the workday and becomes involved in an auto accident?
  • What if the employee is attacked in their own home during working hours?
  • Who pays for equipment and furniture?
  • Who pays for equipment and furniture if it is damaged in a fire or stolen?
  • What if a fire is caused by excessive electrical requirements of computers, fax machines, copy machines, and other business equipment?

Many of these issues are handled on a case-by-case basis depending on jurisdiction. While it seems clear that there is liability associated with injuries that occur in the home office, it is less clear how you can prove work-relatedness or non-work-relatedness. When accidents happen there are rarely any witnesses. Case law is being developed to address some of these issues but most cases are still decided based on the individual circumstances.

The property damage/loss issues need to be established as company policy. Most employers do not provide deluxe home offices for their employees. Many do provide an assortment of equipment (computers, phones, fax machines, etc.) to help the employee stay connected with the workplace. These items are business equipment and probably not covered by the employee’s insurance policies.

Employee Perceptions
Some employees are very comfortable telecommuting and being away from their fixed, corporate office. Others are concerned about their ability to work with the constant distractions of their home and family. Still others do not have or want to make room in their homes for a home office environment. There are valid concerns about staying visible to their co-workers and their management. Many employees feel isolated and not “part of the team.”

The flexibility that telecommuting allows is unquestionably of great value to many employees but it is not for everyone. The positive goodwill generated by the telecommuting environment often encourages employees to work longer and have a better opinion of the company.

Ergonomics
A majority of telecommuters are computer users. After all, it is technology that has enabled many employees to become telecommuters. The ergonomic concerns for home office workers must be addressed to minimize this significant risk factor. Employee education and training is the most effective tool. Home office inspections by trained ergonomists are usually not completed due to the cost involved and the perception of invading the privacy of the employee.

Many employees are not inclined to personally spend the money required for the proper equipment. If their employers do not provide the equipment, the employees use whatever equipment they have. This includes working at fixed height tables with non-adjustable chairs …. generally an ergonomic nightmare.

Educational efforts should be focused on the importance of having a good chair and adjusting the chair and workstation surface to minimize awkward postures. Excellent ergonomic training materials are readily available.

The issue of laptop computers must be addressed in your ergonomics program. A laptop is not designed for regular use – the keyboard is too small and either the keyboard or monitor screen will be in a poor position with respect to allowing neutral postures. Laptop uses should be provided docking stations with separate monitors and keyboards. At a minimum, employees should have a separate keyboard and mouse such that the laptop monitor can be raised to an appropriate level to allow for neutral postures.

The importance of exercise and stretching can not be overstated for computer users. The affects of non-occupational activities (such as additional computer use or video game playing) must also be stressed during educational efforts.

Security Issues
From a risk management perspective, another important aspect to consider is network security. Dial-up connections are inherently less secure than the network connections in the office. Remote users often neglect back-up storage of critical information. These issues need to be addressed through your business continuity and information technology plans. Also, business interruption exposures may exist at home and between office networks from undetected viruses or lack of anti-virus protection programs.

Telecommuters can be a significant component of your business continuity plan (BCP) . If your central office location is destroyed it typically does not impact the telecommuters workspace. Alternate computer networking arrangements are still critical. To be truly effective, your BCP must include a risk assessment at each home office location.

Telecommuting Safety Program
No matter how small or large your organization may be, every employer needs to establish a Telecommuting Safety Program. Such a program might include the following:

Objective
To reduce the frequency and severity of work-at-home accidents and incidents by informing telecommuters of their safety and health rights and responsibilities.

Program Elements
A. Employee training
B. On-site hazard assessment
C. Safety and health consultation
D. Accident investigation
E. Provision of appropriate safety and health devices
F. Contract with employees authorizing home visits

Employee Responsibilities
A. Conduct in-home inspections
B. Complete training
C. Report all incidents

Evaluation Mechanisms
A. Incident rates
B. Incident report forms
C. Workers’ compensation claims
D. Employee feedback

Specific Questions to Consider

Home Inspections

  • Is there a functioning smoke detector in the employee’s home?
  • Are there two or more means of exit/egress from the work area?
  • Are aisles/passageways in the work area clear at all times?
  • Are work area properly illuminated?
  • Are electrical cords/wiring adequately loaded/grounded?

Ergonomics

  • Is the workstation properly adjusted?
  • Have employees been trained on ergonomics?

Air Quality

  • Are gas fired appliances provided with exhaust vents?
  • Has indoor air been tested/evaluated for humidity, moisture, radon, carbon monoxide/dioxide, etc.?

Incident/Accident Investigation

  • Have company policies been established and implemented stating who will perform home inspections and incident investigations to address potential “invasion of privacy” issues?

Company Responsibilities

  • Has training been provided in home inspections, ergonomics, fire hazards, trips/falls, etc.?
  • Are computer equipment and office furniture provided and set up to meet employee needs?

Employee Responsibilities

  • Have employees completed all work-at-home training programs?
  • Do employees follow all established policies regarding home inspections and incident/accident reporting?

Evaluation

  • Has an annual evaluation of the Telecommuting Safety Program been performed?
  • Does comparison of telecommuting vs. office incident rates justify continued telecommuting?

Conclusion
Telecommuting is here to stay. There are too many benefits for employers and employees. As risk management and insurance professionals we need to acknowledge the risks presented by telecommuters and identify and implement corrective actions to minimize our exposure.

Authors
Dirk Duchsherer collaborated with Steve NyBlom (CSP, CPEA, ARM, ALCM) in writing this article. Steve is the Assistant Administrator of the Risk Management/Insurance Practice Specialty and is a Vice President with Aon Risk Services in Los Angeles, CA.