David Wessel published a column in The Wall Street Journal reporting that 47% of Aetna's employees work from home.
I have a complicated history with that issue. In the 1990s and 2000s, I was the office grump on that issue. There was nothing I hated more than a snowy day. I would get up at 4:30 a.m. so I could shovel out, change and make the white-knuckle drive to work at 15 mph.
I would then arrive at work on time to a parade of calls from people who reported to me declaring a work-at-home day because of the snow. My questions were "since when does the company owe you an easy drive to work?" and "Why am I now responsible for where you chose to live?"
The company would then make it worse by sending wishy-washy e-mails to the staff saying that while the office was open but they should use their judgment about whether or not to attempt the journey. My argument to HR was that the office should be either open or closed so people like me who sacrificed to be there on time weren't made chumps of by everyone else who decided it wasn't worth the trouble.
Flash forward to now. I work at home as often as I can get away with. In fact, our noble CEO makes fun of my proclivity for taking any excuse to not get on the train in the morning (scheduling client meetings mid-afternoon on my side of the Hudson is one of my favorites). I keep scorecards of all the results I generate from the home office to rebut the idea that we are somehow sacrificing client value on the alter of me being able to sleep past 5:30 a.m. and still get in a workout.
Wessel gets at the start of the trend as well as the underlying reality driving it. Work-at-home started as a perk to keep valuable employees and has now become a corporate cost-cutting tool. Win-win!
Sometime in the mid-2000s, though, the insurer began to see working from home as more than a favor to employees. "There was a point where we realized that there was an opportunity to drive down costs, particularly real-estate costs," said Elease Wright, senior vice president for human resources, who works at Aetna's Hartford, Conn., headquarters.
Why has this worked?
The extent to which Aetna's work has moved from office to employee homes reflects a relentless drive by America's big service-sector companies to cut costs, as well the effect that the spread of cheap, reliable and fast communications, particularly the Internet, has on the economy.
When I was on the other side of this argument, we were maybe 75% effective working remotely. Now it's about 90% - very different math. My current employer switched to a Google platform last year and the ability to chat and share documents within our e-mail system probably pushed it to 95%.
We should also note that while many jouranlists like Wessell would like to write columns about working from home, what they needed was a company like Aetna that embraced it in a big way and was willing to talk about it. Aetna's PR team suffers a lot because representing a health plan means most of the media inquiries you get are about sick people denied coverage.
That's why it is important for Aetna to maximize the PR they get from soft features on their HR policies and there are few columnists more visible or influential than Wessel, making this a truly great PR hit as well as personally interesting to me.