It’s that time again

It’s mid-winter and the flu season is upon us. This year’s flu season may be even more severe than last year’s. It’s not just the people with sniffles who are having problems, it’s their employers as well. Estimates appearing in the media go as high as $10 billion as the impact on productivity resulting from this year’s flu epidemic. Given that magnitude of financial impact one might consider flu to be this month’s favorite disaster.

Assuming that flu is an equal opportunity assailant we can suppose that it affects all of the US workforce. Since roughly 60% of that workforce comprises information workers—and roughly 80% of information workers are potential teleworkers—it’s reasonable to ask: why isn’t telework being used more widely as a serious flu avoidance method?

I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about the current flu situation. Aside from descriptions of the various sufferers of flu the report gave examples of people who persisted in coming to work even though they felt terrible. In some cases the reason given for coming to work was simply that the sufferer would not get paid otherwise. But the report that that struck me the most was of one worker who came to the office every day because he simply liked schmoozing with his coworkers—regardless of the fact that he was probably infecting them as well. He even noticed that his co-workers seemed to come down with the flu after he had spent some time with them.

I consider his actions to be inexcusable. Good old face-to-face interaction is not appropriate where people are put in danger as a result. Deliberately going to a place where one is likely to cause distress, and possibly even death, to others strikes me as being the height of insensitivity or selfishness or both. If the flu epidemic amounts to disaster to an organization’s operations then appropriate disaster remedies should be taken, such as requiring that all employees who have come down with the flu work solely as telecommuters until they are well. Aside from preventing sick employees from infecting other employees there is a good chance that those with the flu will still be able to be partially productive. So the employees win by being able to suffer at home instead of dragging themselves to work in that condition. Their employers win by being able to conduct business pretty much as usual.

Of course, in these times of economic uncertainty, it is still possible that many employees will be reluctant to stay out of the office for fear of losing their jobs (the ‘absence makes the heart grow yonder’ effect). But any properly designed telework program will include sufficient provisions for job security based on worker performance so that those fears will prove unfounded.

So the basic rules for disaster preparedness for any organization should include:

  • implementation and maintenance of telework options for all eligible employees; and
  • insistence that employees telework in every case, such as a flu epidemic, where company operations would otherwise be significantly impaired.

Of course these rules come much more easily for organizations that routinely use telecommuting. So mind the sniffles and get them out of the office.

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