LOS ANGESLES—There are still three months left in what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is calling the worst flu outbreak in a decade. Employers from coast to coast are feeling the doubt-whammy financial impact of increased health care costs and widespread absenteeism. Virtual offices can be part of the solution.

The CDC estimates that, on average, seasonal flu outbreaks cost the nation's employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. That does not include the indirect costs related to lost productivity and absenteeism.

This year, the cost to businesses may be significantly higher in light of the increased number of cases. So far, 29 of 41 states reporting flu cases say the outbreak is at "severe" levels. According to a report in the New York Daily News, the number of cases in the state has already surpassed 15,000, compared to just 4,400 reported cases during last year's entire flu season. Virtual offices can be part of the solution.

"The economy is still on shaky ground and many workers continue to be worried about losing their jobs, despite the fact that annual layoffs are at the lowest level since the late 1990s,” says John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “In this environment, workers are reluctant to call in sick or even use vacation days. Of course, this has significant negative consequences for the workplace, where the sick worker is not only performing at a reduced capacity but also likely to infect others."

As we enter into what is typically the peak time for catching the flu—January and February are considered the heaviest period of the flu season that stretches from October into March—companies that may already be shorthanded coming out of the recession could find themselves struggling to keep up with demand in the weeks ahead as absenteeism claims more manpower. By allowing employees to telecommute from a virtual office, you can reduce the risks of spreading the flu through the office.

"While sick employees may think they are doing the right thing by 'toughing it out' and coming into work when ill, the fact is they are only making matters worse,” Challenger says. “Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, presenteeism, as it has come to be called, only spreads illness to more workers and further damages the employers ability to meet demand.”

Challenger says you want to encourage workers to stay home when they are sick so they do not spread illness to co-workers. If you have virtual office technologies set up, they can remain at least somewhat productive even while at home.

According to Challenger, one of the most effective ways to prevent the flu from spreading through the workplace would be to become a predominantly virtual office workforce. Any employee who can do his or her work from home with a computer and phone should be doing so prior to an outbreak.

"For those who must go to the workplace, such as retail workers and hands-on service providers, companies should enforce a three-foot minimum buffer between all personnel at all times,” Challenger says. “Employees should also be encouraged, if not compelled, to follow strict hygienic practices, including washing hands regularly and using anti-bacterial wipes to keep their work area, phone, keyboard and mouse clean.”