Why Telepresence Robots Could Revolutionize Telecommuting for Employees with Disabilities

By: Tania Lavin, Market Research, Allegis Group

Telepresence robots allow users in two different locations to engage in live, face-to-face conversations via mobile machines equipped with video screens. Companies use telepresence robots to provide more personal and productive interactions with teleworkers throughout the work day. Telepresence robots also allow employers to more closely monitor their teleworker’s activity. Employers who embrace telepresence robots for employees with disabilities could more fully utilize employees’ skills while providing a better work/life balance.

Telecommuting Today
According to an April 2013 survey by Think Beyond the Label, 37.1% of employed people with disabilities telecommute. Another report from the BLS suggests about 24.5% of employed persons with a disability do some work at home as a part of their job. Apply these percentages to the 5.1 million employed people with disabilities and we see there are between 1.2 and 1.9 million telecommuters with disabilities.

Seventeen percent say they need to telecommute because of a disability and 4.3% because of inadequate public or private transportation options. Mobility and transportation are likely impediments for some of the 805,000 unemployed people with disabilities and a portion of the 22 million people with disabilities not currently seeking jobs. If more employers embrace telework, the ridiculously high unemployment for people with disabilities (13.6% in May 2013) may start to decrease.

Potential Candidates
Telework isn’t an option for every position. Workers in Food preparation and serving, Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance, Construction and extraction, Installation and maintenance and Production, transportation and material moving jobs must be onsite to do their jobs. However, telework is a viable choice for some workers with Business and financial, Computer and mathematical, Architecture and engineering, Life, physical and social science, Legal, Sales and Office and administrative support skills. Telepresence opens up teleworking possibilities further to include Management, Community and social service, Education, training and library and Healthcare positions.

Emerging Legal Ground
Telepresence robots create new legal questions for employers, employees, unions and their lawyers. It is unclear how telepresence technologies will impact employers’ accommodation obligations. Telepresence robots also raise privacy and monitoring implications. These and other legal questions will be answered as adoption and affordability increase.

A Promising Opportunity
Employers should carefully explore the costs, benefits and challenges of telepresence robots. Organizations that adopt telepresence technologies should develop explicit rules that are consistently executed to maintain a fair working environment. Despite potential cost and legal hurdles, telepresence technologies are an increasingly real option for increasing employability and worker satisfaction by accommodating the needs of people with disabilities.