Oct. 12--Aetna, long praised as one of the nation's most flexible employers, is cutting back on a policy that allows employees to work from home.
The company, which believes its generous work-at-home policy is harming collaboration, will be requiring managers who live within 50 miles of an office to start working in the office next year, according to several employees. Over time more rank-and-file employees will be brought back into the office.
Aetna has also announced plans for layoffs and an an early retirement package as the Hartford-based insurer moves to reduce operating costs.
Aetna spokesman Matt Clyburn said the changes to the telecommuting policy are being done "with the goal of increasing collaboration and driving innovation."
"Recently we informed employees of several planned actions to help position Aetna for continued growth in 2017 and beyond, including a voluntary early retirement program," Clyburn said.
"We are not providing details on the potential impacts of our early retirement program ... nor are we providing details on updates to our telework policy. Those changes will be communicated directly with employees," Clyburn said.
CEO Mark Bertolini told Aetna employees in September about the need to trim the workforce and bring workers back to the office, while also announcing a plan to offer an Apple Watch to employees.
Aetna is also in the midst of a controversial proposed merger with Louisville-based Humana that is being opposed by the U.S. Department of Justice. In the midst of the merger discussions, Aetna's CEO has offered no assurances that the insurer will keep its headquarters in Hartford if the merger wins approval.
Over the past decade, the company has emphasized its employee-friendliness in many ways, and its work-from-home policy is one of the things it touts.
According to Gallup, the percentage of U.S. workers who say they have telecommuted has risen dramatically over the past two decades. The polling organization reported last year that 37 percent of workers say they have telecommuted.
"Who wants a long commute? With more than 100 office locations, we may be closer than you think. You might even get the chance to work from home," the company states on its website. "Today, more than 43 percent of our employees telecommute."
Aetna has about 6,000 employees in Connecticut, down from about 7,000 in 2013, when the company told The Courant that 3,000 of them worked from home.
Grace Figueredo, vice president of Aetna's workplace culture, chief diversity and inclusion officer, said this year that about 5,000 people work at Aetna headquarters in Hartford. Some people work both from home and at headquarters.
Wayne Turmel, co-founder of the Remote Leadership Institute, which helps managers deal with a scattered workforce, said many companies expanded working from home options for financial reasons.
But Turmel said that while people who work from home are more productive, studies have shown that they collaborate less with colleagues. Now, he said, many companies, including Aetna, are shifting back to requiring employees to come to the office.
He said companies that want to balance remote work with collaboration should ask themselves: "Are we creating opportunities online to get to know each other and really know each others' strengths and weaknesses?"
Turmel said many companies haven't adjusted their remote work approach, even as they realize their work culture isn't where they want it to be, because it can add to real estate costs. And, he said, workers who took a job, or moved farther away based on how often they had to be in the office, will resent a change.
In addition to the change in Aetna's work-at-home policy, Bertolini said some job reductions are due to the company's decision to stop selling Obamacare policies in some states. The company will no longer need 800 jobs supporting that business segment. He said that 400 of those workers had been placed in jobs elsewhere in the company.
Clyburn declined to say how many people are eligible for the early retirement package.
"We are constantly looking for ways to reduce operating costs, which includes reviewing how our resources are deployed," he said.
Aetna's early retirement initiatives have dramatically trimmed veteran employees from the insurer's workforce.
Bertolini told the Wharton Magazine this year that early retirement programs have left Aetna with relatively few employees with more than 20 years tenure.
"So out of 50,000 employees, we probably have less than 1,600 employees who have been with the company longer than 20 years," he said.
In 2011, 1,700 people in the company took early retirement, including 400 in Connecticut. In order to qualify both then and now, their years of service plus their age had to add up to 65.
The Apple Watch initiative received wide press, while the company chose not to make public its plans for changes to work-at-home policies.
The company said that Apple Watches would be provided free to all its 50,000 employees. However, in order for the watch to be free, employees would have to choose to spend their $200 annual wellness reimbursement credit on the device, and the company would make up the difference.
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