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The Widening Telecommuting Divide: Aetna Vs. Yahoo

March 29, 2013 | Telepresence Options

Story and Images by Gary M. Stern/

The telecommuting backlash has begun.�

When Marissa Mayer, Yahoo's CEO, halted telecommuting and ordered all remote workers to return to the office in February, questions simmered about its usefulness. And Yahoo wasn't alone since Bank of America also reduced telecommuting in December.

Many other companies, on the other hand, have learned that telecommuting can be an asset to attract and retain skilled employees and boost its bottom-line. But managing telecommuters is a skill that decides its effectiveness.

At health insurer Aetna, teleworkers are thriving and growing. In 2013, 47% of its employees telecommute vs. 9% in 2005. Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna saved $78 million annually in real estate costs, said spokesperson Susan Millerick. Moreover, its turnover rate for telecommuters is 3% compared to 8% for other Aetna employees, which saves on recruiting and training costs.

Of Aetna's telecommuters, nearly half are involved in member services, call centers, claims processing and IT operations, Millerick says. To be approved, staff must demonstrate a track record of solid performance and self-initiation. Susan O'Donnell, an Aetna clinical manager, oversees 70 registered nurses and supervisors throughout the Northeast from her Litchfield, Conn., home office. She tracks nurses' performance by their ability to meet weekly metrics on their case load. Moreover, O'Donnell sends instant messages, monitors live calls with clients to offer feedback, and knows whether they're online or offline. "It's little different from being in the office. It's seamless. If someone on my staff were two cubicles away, I'd send an instant message," she said.

Hanging Out By Phone

But without that day-to-day contact and ability to see their faces and sense� their morale, O'Donnell relies on emails, instant messages, telephone calls and� videoconferencing to gauge her staff. She focuses on an employee's tone of voice� and is sensitive to any alterations. If a nurse seems downcast, she identifies� what the problem is and tries to resolve it.

Without the ability to casually engage staff at the water cooler, O'Donnell� and her supervisors arrange informal get-togethers by phone. They might have� staff chitchats about the Oscar awards or how their kids are doing, for example,� just as they would do at the coffee machine. Some supervisors hold weekly� meetings in the office to foster face-to-face encounters and encourage� camaraderie.

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