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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Risk managers with companies that offer flexible work schedules are facing new challenges in a workplace with vanishing boundaries.

As employers increasingly allow flexible arrangements like telecommuting, risk managers are facing risks they haven't seen before, posed by a workforce that is spending less time at the office.

But it is a business risk, first and foremost, that flexible work arrangements present, according to a risk manager whose company recently began offering such arrangements.

Employers should keep in mind when considering whether to allow flexible arrangements how they will affect the company's business objectives, says Pamela Rogers, assistant treasurer-risk management at Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Chicago.

"Is there a risk in attempting to accommodate all of our employees' lifestyle choices?" she asked. "This is a question I ask myself a lot, and it's a question I've been pretty vocal about in the company."

While employers want the best workers who are productive and able to help satisfy customer needs, "I think we might begin to get into a little bit of dangerous territory as corporations if we're trying to be flexible with everyone's lifestyle choices."

"What we're talking about is an idea that only works if our business objectives and our customer needs are met," Ms. Rogers said, pointing out that Sears recently began allowing employees options including telecommuting when they can show that the arrangement would not be burdensome to co-workers or bad for the company's business or customers.

Speaking at the seventh annual Liberty Mutual Risk Management Forum in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., last week, Ms. Rogers said employers are eager to accommodate workers in ways that will make them more productive, but "we can never forget what the end result is; that end result is better business, better business results in our financial statements."

The challenge risk managers face is illustrated in the numbers that show workers increasingly involved in flexible work arrangements.

Various surveys show that about 20% of U.S. companies allow flexible work arrangements, according to James R. Jones, director of claims education at The American Institute for CPCU and the Insurance Institute of America in Malvern, Pa.

Those arrangements include telecommuting, schedules with flexible work hours, job sharing and compressed workweeks, Mr. Jones pointed out.

He said the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that about 15 million U.S. workers will be telecommuting by 2002, up from about 11 million today.

Mr. Jones, who joined Ms. Rogers in the presentation, said that among the drivers behind the trend to allow flexible work arrangements is employers' need to retain and attract skilled workers at a time when they are in short supply.

In addition, he said, there is an "increased workforce participation of women who have young children. . .and technology is eliminating the need for a physical presence" at many employers' locations.

"The raw material now for doing your job is information," Mr. Jones emphasized. "And the tools you have are PCs and things that are easily transportable. We're no longer tied to the land, to buildings and to large equipment. That allows you to act with this ability to have flexible work arrangements."

Proceed with caution when allowing the arrangements, Ms. Rogers advised employers.

She said risk managers have to consider the issue of how they will manage the safety of workers who do their jobs from home. "Where does the workday begin and end? It's not going to be eight to five, maybe. . . .What is the workplace? Is it an office set up in someone's home or is it the entire home?"

Risk managers need to answer those questions as a way to determine the kinds of environments employees are working in and what risks they could pose, Ms. Rogers said.

"In our formal flexible work arrangement policy, we have a form that the employee signs (that says) we have the right to come and audit their workplace. We are concerned about safety in their workplace regardless of where that workplace physically exists."

Another question is whether the workplace is ergonomically designed so that workers are comfortable and safe from injuries such as repetitive motion disorders, Ms. Rogers remarked.

Employers must consider that there will be an impact on human resources policies, she told employers. "How are you going to calculate vacation, sick time and other benefits for people who aren't working a full-time job in these part-time or job-sharing arrangements?"

Karl A. Jacobson, senior vp and general manager-loss prevention at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. in Boston, moderated the session.