On a typical workday at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, 28 percent of the staff, or 1,786 of the company's 6,100 employees, are doing their jobs from home.
But when the winter storm brought snow and sub-freezing temperatures to Chattanooga this week, the number of BlueCross employees working from home nearly doubled to 3,300 workers on Wednesday.
With remote computer and telephone hookups, the health insurance giant was able to process claims, handle customer inquiries and continue most of its work even with half of its staff not at the company's corporate headquarters atop Cameron Hill in downtown Chattanooga.
"We definitely use telecommuting as part of our business continuity planning so that in the event of bad weather or office closures, our systems are still up and running and we can reroute incoming calls and handle other needs with our remote workers," said Jennifer Shields, a telecommuting consultant at BlueCross, Tennessee's biggest health insurer.
BlueCross is among a growing number of businesses that are increasingly using employees who remotely work from their own home. The company expects to increase the number of its employees who telecommute to at least 2,000 this year, allowing the Tennessee BlueCross plan to currently employ workers across 18 states without any daily commute times.
The company also has another 2,800 workers who are able to work from home one or two days a week "and those are the folks that when there is inclement weather or some other problem, they are still able to do much of their work," Shields said.
BlueCross began its telecommuting program a decade ago when its new $300 million corporate campus built to consolidate workers previously housed in 10 Chattanooga offices didn't end up having enough space for the growing staff.
"Our telework program started in 2008 and it has literally grown every year and should grow again in 2018," said Jeff Wakefield, director of technology and administrative services in BlueCross's human resources department.
Most workers who telecommute start by working at a BlueCross office and to telecommute they need to reside in an area that has enough broadband internet connections to download at least 3 megabits per second.
"There are some areas of Tennessee where we don't have the option for full-time telework at home," Shields said.
Shields said BlueCross has teleworkers in 25 of the company's 29 divisions across an array of jobs. Being able to offer telecommute jobs helps the company recruit workers from most anywhere, she said.
"Our surveys indicate that teleworkers have a higher intent to stay with the organization and a higher engagement and job satisfaction," Shields said.
Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 50 percent of the U.S. workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least partial telework and nearly 25 percent of the workforce teleworks with some frequency.
Surveys indicate that more than 80 percent of all workers say they would like to telework at least part time. Work studies indicate that most workers are not at their desk 50 to 60 percent of the time, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
The number of teleworkers has grown 10 times faster than the rest of the workforce since 2005 and the 3.7 million Americans who work from home at least half of the time comprise 2.8 percent of all workers.
At Chattanooga's Unum Group, about 10 percent of the company's nearly 10,000 employees are remote workers.
"Empowering our employees to have remote-working options helps support Unum's comprehensive business continuity plans," company spokeswoman Kelly Spencer said. "Many employees chose to work from home [Wednesday when it began snowing], and business could operate as usual thanks in part to the commitment we've made to flexible arrangements and telecommuting."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6340.
Correction: Jeff Wakefield is director of technology and administrative services in BlueCross's human resources department. A previous version of this story incorrectly calls him a vice president.