By Karin W. Sarratt, SPHR, VP of Talent Management and CDO, WellPoint, Inc.

The recent news that Yahoo! would eliminate their work at home policy stirred a passionate debate about the topic.

Many believe the advent of technology provides greater flexibility to recruit and retain top talent without the need to be based in a designated company location. Others worry about how having a dispersed workforce may negatively impact productivity, innovation, engagement, and inclusion. The discussion is an important one for companies like WellPoint that have a significant proportion of associates who work from home.

Driven by the desire to have greater flexibility and work/life balance and company-initiated space optimization efforts, our “off-premises worker” program has grown significantly in the last years. We benefit from having associates from all over the country service our members in different time zones. This allows us to source talent across the country and appeal to individuals who may otherwise opt out of the workforce (i.e. working mothers, military spouses, or individuals with disabilities). Operationally, it can also help keep us “open for business” in the midst of temporary office closures due to natural disasters or other emergencies.

The question for us is not whether or not to offer these arrangements, but how can we develop a more strategic approach to sustaining a virtual workforce that is productive, actively engaged, and has the channels and opportunities to contribute their perspectives and ideas. When do the challenges of work at home outweigh the benefits to the organization? Where do we draw the line? Are all roles suitable for a work-at-home arrangement? How do we replicate the in-office conditions (casual interactions, opportunities for face-to-face networking, and exposure) that can impact effectiveness, innovation, and career paths?

Inclusion is at the core of these questions, and those of us who are shaping the future workplace—one that is diverse and inclusive—must incorporate the virtual workforce into the equation. Technology is a big part of building this inclusive virtual work environment—leveraging tools such as email, video conference capabilities, and instant video chat systems. But the challenge goes beyond technology. It’s also about ensuring that those who work remotely are in roles that suit these kinds of arrangements and that leaders and managers develop the skillset to bring the voices and perspectives of those they can’t see in the office and create opportunities for interaction and networking. It’s about creating a culture with virtual spaces for brainstorming, collaboration, and innovation.

At WellPoint our associate resources groups (ARGs) have provided a forum for our associates to connect, network, and create opportunities for professional growth and development. About a third of all ARG members work from home. Most recently we launched an ARG dedicated to off-premise workers and those who manage or work in virtual teams. WAVE (WellPoint Associates in a Virtual Environment) is focused on working with our leadership in Human Resources and IT to develop a strategic approach to our virtual workforce, bringing their unique perspectives and experiences to this discussion.

As professionals focused on diversity and inclusion, we know there is no one-size-fits-all solution and there is plenty of room for innovative approaches to leveraging the virtual workforce. While the topic will undoubtedly continue to be discussed, we know that diversifying through expansion of the virtual workforce alone is not enough. Being strategic and finding ways to drive inclusion of this rich source of talent is the key to success.

Karin W. Sarratt leads all aspects of end-to-end talent management for the enterprise, including succession planning; management and leadership development; performance management; learning; training; organizational development; recruiting and retaining high potential talent; and diversity & inclusion. She is skilled in recognizing and developing top talent to enable successful, strategic succession planning.