A handful of large employers are now bringing their teleworkers back in-house. Will others follow?
By Carol Patton
Over this past year, roughly 5,000 U.S. employees who telecommuted at IBM were brought back into the office as part of the company's plan to evolve how work is performed.
The tech giant has been building "agile" or flexible hubs all over the country, which are employee teams, often multidisciplinary, that work collaboratively in the same space. Envision developers, marketers and sales professionals collectively working on the same product in the same office.
"Changing business demands have led to a new work culture," says Carrie Altieri, vice president of communications, people and culture at the Armonk, N.Y.-based technology company. "For us, that new work culture is agile."
Ironically, creating an agile work environment can involve limiting a popular employee benefit -- telework. For some companies, the practice hasn't held up its end of the bargain. Consider that IBM, Yahoo, Google and Best Buy have reversed their direction on telecommuting by either restricting or ending work-from-home programs.
Indeed, the appeal of telework has diminished at a small but growing number of employers over the past couple of years, with some companies concluding that such workers are not as productive, engaged, creative, responsive or flexible when adapting to changing market demands.
As an extension of this shift in thinking, HR professionals are increasingly being forced to re-evaluate the policies and practices they have in place as it pertains to how and where work is getting done.
Empowered On-site Teams
Back in the early '90s, Altieri says, IBM had as many as 40 percent of its 380,000 global employees working remotely. But in recent years, she says, the company began exploring ways to address "the relentless forces of change and time pressures" that are inherent in the digital era.
IBM invested $380 million in modernizing U.S. workspaces at its headquarters and many of its offices, including those in Austin, Texas, San Francisco, New York and Rochester, Minn. These workspaces include moveable desks and walls and writeable walls.
Altieri says the purpose is to showcase everyone's work, stimulate innovation and present learning opportunities on how to streamline tasks or avoid duplicative efforts. "This level of collaboration and co-creation gets the product out faster . . .," she says. "Small self-directed teams are empowered to make decisions and don't have to go back to a manager to get approval for every step."
Looking back, however, she says employee reaction to agile hubs has been mixed. Of the nearly 5,000 telecommuters, approximately half were given 90 days to find another job at IBM -- either remote or on-site. The remainder was given an 18-month runway to relocate to agile hubs in different cities. Between 10 percent and 13 percent either quit or were terminated.
The process of identifying which positions to move into "agile hubs" was "very surgical," says Altieri. Coders, marketers, IT professionals, office staff and offering managers -- those who work with developers, designers and others to make great products -- were among those selected.
So far, Altieri says, the move to scale back certain telework positions seems to be delivering results. Agile teams, she says, cut the rollout of cloud-based software by 30 percent when compared to similar rollouts. In HR, she adds, agile recruiting teams slashed the hiring process from 85 days to 45 days and doubled the satisfaction of IBM hiring managers who worked with recruiters.
"We know this is working because of faster outcomes," Altieri says, adding that the company still supports flexible work practices and thousands of remote workers. "But when you make a change, it's always a challenge to have [employees] understand it . . . . We gave them plenty of time to make a move."
Examine Both Sides
Flexible work schedules are still widely supported by employers. Based on Mercer's 2016/2017 US Compensation Policies and Practices Survey, about one-quarter of organizations have a formal flexplace policy while one-third have an informal flexplace policy for employees.
Not surprisingly, results from Mercer's 2017 Global Talent Trends Study reveals that the majority of employees want more flexibility while 40 percent of HR respondents acknowledge that offering more flexible ways to work would improve their employees' ability to thrive.
But that said, employees are also concerned that working remotely would negatively impact their promotional opportunities.
There's no doubt that telecommuting is evolving. WorldatWork, a global HR association based in Scottsdale, Ariz., published a 2017 Trends in Workplace Flexibility report, which gathered 279 responses from its members.
Comparing the organization's 2017 results with a similar survey it conducted in 2015, the research found that:
* Telecommuting on an ad-hoc basis has shown significant growth lately. (Eighty-nine percent now offer this program, compared to 85 percent in 2015.)
* Monthly telework -- where employees work at home at least once a month -- increased from 56 percent in 2015 to 61 percent in 2017.
* Weekly telecommuting -- where employees worked remotely at least one day per week -- increased from 53 percent to 61 percent over that period.
* Telework on a full-time basis increased from 34 percent to 38 percent over that period.
"We definitely saw an increase in the use of telework on an ad-hoc basis," says Alison Avalos, director of research and certification at WorldatWork. By adopting an ad-hoc strategy, she says, companies can prevent or minimize an entitlement mentality among teleworkers and be more flexible as their business needs change, since telecommuting isn't ingrained into anyone's work schedule.
Still, moving away from telework is no easy feat. In many workplaces, employees have grown so accustomed to working from home that it's perceived as standard practice and no longer a benefit or reward.
Avalos points out that this creates a major challenge for HR professionals: balancing company needs with employee expectations. She believes HR, for now, will continue to offer a combination of ad-hoc telecommuting and work-from-home programs.
One approach might involve re-acquainting employees with the benefits of working on-site and the disadvantages of remote work through articles in in-house newsletters or during staff meetings. Some believe HR also needs to do more research regarding any adverse effects for remote workers regarding career mobility, promotions or assignments that involve plum projects.
At first glance, on-site benefits can be very impressive. Take Google. On-site employees are able to access free gourmet cafeterias, massage rooms, nap pods, and even get haircuts, says John McClendon, associate professor and chair of the HR management department at Temple University's Fox School of Business in Philadelphia.
McClendon points to the social rewards and intrinsic satisfaction of belonging to a work community.
HR leaders need to explain how serendipitous encounters at the water cooler, riding the elevator, climbing the stairs or simply sharing space with co-workers can enhance employee knowledge, create positive learning experiences and present on-site employees with job-related opportunities not available to remote workers, he says.
At the same time, McClendon adds, HR professionals need to explore the adverse impact limited face time can have on innovation, creativity and product development. "To what degree does tacit knowledge matter?"
Proving this isn't easy, of course. HR's challenge is to find ways to collect data on face time and tacit knowledge.
McClendon says it's very hard to measure the value of sharing knowledge or ideas with co-workers, having office space or commuting to and from work.
"There's a healthier, critical perspective emerging about the downside [of telework] as it relates to the adverse effects of employee performance," he says.
Shifting Focus, Slowly
After operating an executive search firm with a virtual workforce for a decade, James Philip founded and serves as managing director of JMJ Phillip, a 15-year-old search firm that brought most of its estimated 50 employees who were teleworking back in-house.
"You cannot develop young minds at a rapid pace when they are virtual," says Philip, whose firm has offices in Chicago and Troy, Mich. Developing talent requires a lot of one-on-one conversations, he adds.
Philip points to some of his clients who are following a similar path, noting that businesses don't want to transform into an online chat forum, become faceless or cultureless, or miss out on human emotion.
Virtual mentoring or other forms of remote coaching can never replace the positive impact of in-person interactions, he says.
"For all the hype and talk of emotional intelligence and empathy, it's hard to really get to know someone just by a phone call or Skype ... ," he adds. "[I know my people] well enough to help coach them through their issues because I know what makes them tick. It is just hard to do that when someone is hiding out at home."
Perhaps within the next decade, telecommuting won't even be an issue.
Where people work is going to become less important than how they work, says Jim Ware, executive director of The Future of Work Unlimited in Walnut Creek, Calif., a research and advisory firm that covers HR matters.
About five years ago, Ware was giving a presentation on a flexible work program to the executive committee of a financial-services company. He recalls how the company's CEO turned to him and said, "What do I care where people are as long as they get their work done."
Ware says HR professionals need to train supervisors on how to manage for results, create cultures of autonomy and accountability, and focus on the best way to get work done. More companies, he says, need to lean in that direction.
"In a few years, we may not even be talking about telecommuting anymore," Ware says. "My hope is that employers will not focus on where people work, but [on] how they work. Telecommuting will simply be an option and won't be the center of attention."