What Happens When Employees Work Out of Their Car?

It was bound to happen. After years of introducing technologies designed to make your car feel more like a home, some automakers are ready to start converting your vehicle into an office. Indeed, two different auto-related companies have announced Microsoft partnerships this year that are specifically designed to help boost business productivity while on the road. Needless to say, having employees take advantage of these features could result in big changes for HR professionals — and they could be coming sooner than you think.

It’s almost here

Harman International, probably best known for its uplevel Harman Kardon audio brand, got things started in January. That’s when the company revealed it would team with Microsoft to introduce key functions of Office 365 into Harman’s line of automotive infotainment systems. Then, this fall, one of the brands that happens to rely on Harman infotainment technology—Mercedes-Benz—confirmed that it would debut “In Car Office” in production vehicles by the first half of 2017.

Leveraging the Microsoft Exchange mail and calendar services, In Car Office “knows” about upcoming conference calls, for example, and if you’re in the vehicle, it can automatically dial you in at the appropriate time. Similarly, if other calls are on your calendar, the system also can recognize this and remind you a few minutes before. Or if you’re headed for a face-to-face meeting, the system can automatically set the destination in the car’s navigation system.

Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, had this to say about the system during his keynote address at IFA 2016, one of Europe’s consumer electronics conventions: “These are three small but efficient steps to use your time in the car well, and instead of falling behind in work while on the road, you can actually get ahead.”

Zetsche further made it clear that Mercedes has “big plans” for the future of In Car Office, with more applications on the way. So, what does this mean for human resources professionals managing the expenses and risks of these on-the-road offices?

A question of safety and liability

First off, helping to maintain a safe workplace can be a vital role for HR professionals, so if your employees’ vehicles become part of that workplace, they could become part of your responsibilities, too. A large part.

After all, according to a National Safety Council report, motor vehicle crashes are already the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths in this country. The way things currently stand, creating more driver distractions could only make things worse. And to be sure, despite efforts to make these in-vehicle systems less distracting for drivers, evidence shows that anything that takes attention away from the actual driving process increases the potential for a crash. This even includes using “hands-free” technology instead of fussing with a smartphone.

A 2012 National Safety Council white paper, which was based on in-depth medical research, concluded that when our brains are faced with two different tasks, they can’t be addressed at the same time; instead, the brain switches back and forth between the two. It’s during those “switches” that attention delays can creep in and quickly grow. As the report states, “Hands-free devices offer no safety benefit when driving … (and) do not eliminate cognitive distraction.”

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That means that until cars can do the driving themselves, using them as offices could end up being plenty distracting — and quite the headache for the HR departments dealing with the extra safety and liability concerns. Indeed, although it varies state to state, employers may be responsible for workers’ compensation for employee injuries sustained from a car accident while “on the job.”

The work/life/car balance

Though boosting productivity is crucial to any company’s success, experienced HR experts realize that work/life balance is also important when it comes to employees working more effectively. In fact, a recent study from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology indicated that: “Those who achieve this balance tend to have higher levels of satisfaction with their jobs and life in general, as well as lower levels of stress and depression … The employee and the organization benefit most when workers experience greater balance between what they do on and off the clock.”

Expecting people to be on the clock when they’re in their cars, however, would require resetting that balance — and perhaps rebalancing the company’s books. While it’s too early to know how this would play out, if the time folks spend in their in-car offices is considered “work time,” it could have a financial impact for employers who pay on an hourly basis.

As an HR pro, you don’t have to be told that employees are particularly sensitive to concerns about compensation and safety, and in-car offices will raise issues about both. With that in mind, our advice is to continue raising your awareness about how the latest automotive technologies will affect the future of the workplace.

Charles Krome shares his automotive expertise as a writer for CARFAX. Charles lives near Detroit and, given his last name, was bound to work in the auto industry. You can read more from Charles on his Facebook page or reach him on LinkedIn.  

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