Diversity Insight

Alone on an Island: Supporting Remote Workers in the New Economy

For many employees, remote work offers appealing benefits: more freedom, a flexible schedule, and a personalized work space. For others, it creates challenges. For instance, how do companies offer absence and disability support for employees who work outside the office?

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With nearly 4 million American employees working remotely, this complicated issue is only growing for HR professionals nationwide, with more employees choosing to work from home.

Fortunately, there are absence and disability options companies can implement to support their remote workforce in this changing economy. Developing a broader disability management approach makes it possible to address remote workers and other nontraditional employees without making them feel isolated on their own “island.”

The Logistics of Supporting Remote Workers

It’s no secret that supporting remote workers can be a logistical nightmare. How can companies handle an ergonomics issue when the employee is using his or her own chair and desk? If an illness, injury, or disability forces an employee to leave work for an extended period of time, how does he or she return to work when the office is his or her home?

These are all legitimate questions, and they apply to more than just the remote workforce. Recent research conducted by The Standard found that “gig” economy workers (contract employees or freelance workers) who struggle with health issues, family care, and drug addiction continue to pose challenges for employers. To combat these challenges, employers need to consider introducing effective support programs.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the lack of confidence among HR decision-makers to support these unconventional employees. Of the HR representatives surveyed in The Standard’s research, only 38% felt ready to support remote workers through stay-at-work and return-to-work programs; just 16% felt ready to address part-time employees and gig workers; 27% felt ready to support family and eldercare issues; and 25% felt ready to support drug addiction.

It’s evident that when less than half of all HR decision-makers feel equipped to provide reasonable return-to-work and stay-at-work accommodations for nontraditional workers, employees and employers alike suffer. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Solving for the Unconventional Worker

The fastest fix for employers and HR managers struggling to cope with reasonable accommodations is the introduction of a formal absence and disability management program that addresses the needs of both in-office employees and remote workers. Not only does this solve the needs of difficult-to-accommodate employees, but it also provides other business-boosting benefits.

For instance, having an absence and disability program in place results in an average of 32% better employee productivity, 36% higher workplace morale, and 40% improved employee retention. In this economy, employee morale and retention are especially crucial: Retaining valuable talent by providing the right support gives proactive employers measurable benefits against competitors with less-than-stellar absence and disability programs.

Additionally, the investment in addressing employee needs often outweighs the costs. Our research showed that nearly 70% of HR decision-makers at large companies and one-third at small companies say they’ve experienced complaints or lawsuits related to their disability management practices. On the other hand, 92% of respondents stated that formal employee disability programs helped control costs and reduced exposure to risk. When employers invest in absence and disability programs and support HR managers, everyone benefits.

Returning to Shore

It’s easy to think of the parties involved in absence and disability accommodations—employers, HR managers, and employees—as separate, distinct groups with very different needs. In truth, a strong absence and disability management program addresses the needs of your evolving workforce, ensuring employee well-being and providing HR assistance while benefiting the employer’s bottom line.

With additional support, remote employees, gig workers, and employees with health complications will feel empowered to return to work in a timely way that maximizes productivity. Gone are the days when remote employees felt trapped on their own personal island; now, with your help, they’ll have the tools necessary to effectively get back on land and rejoin their team.

Jung Ryu, the national accounts practice leader for The Standard, is responsible for developing comprehensive disability management solutions that address the whole person to meet the needs of the most complex clients. He provides recommendations in all aspects of benefits, ranging from core to ancillary products, and is focused on providing strategic direction and advising stakeholders on the latest benefits trends. His experience includes helping organizations develop multiyear healthcare strategies, creating ideas around operational efficiency and cost avoidance in health and retirement as a Big Four consultant, and acting as head of Total Rewards for a major insurance carrier.