HP yanks telecommuters

HP has been a pioneer in telecommuting and flexible work schedules, but now nearly all IT employees must report to work at the office:

The decision shocked HP employees and surprised human resource management experts, who believe telecommuting is still a growing trend. … By August, almost all of HP’s IT employees will have to work in one of 25 designated offices during most of the week. With many thousands of HP IT employees scattered across 100 sites around the world — from Palo Alto to Dornach, Germany — the new rules require many to move. Those who don’t will be out of work without severance pay, according to several employees affected by the changes. … The architect of the HP division’s change, Randy Mott, is regarded by Wall Street as a mastermind of operational efficiency based on his days as chief information officer at Wal-Mart Stores and Dell. Since joining HP as CIO in July, Mott’s philosophy on building a strong IT workforce starkly contrasts with that of competitors, who encourage telecommuting to retain skilled workers who desire better work/life balance. Mott said by bringing IT employees together to work as teams in offices, the less-experienced employees who aren’t performing well — which there are “a lot of” — can learn how to work more effectively. In an office, “you’re able to put teams together that can learn very aggressively and rapidly from each other,” he said.

Sure. But you also risk losing talented people who wouldn’t work for you if telecommuting weren’t an option. One woman has worked at HP for about 20 years and she says she’s not going to uproot her family and move across the country to her designated California office:

“Why is HP telling us we can’t do this when everybody else is saying, `Please do’? That’s kind of bizarre,” said the employee, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retribution. “I like my flexibility. The only reason I’ve stayed with HP this long is because I’ve been telecommuting.”

Some problems HP had with telecommuting:

one of HP’s former IT managers, who left the company in October, said a few employees abused the flexible work arrangements and could be heard washing dishes or admitted to driving a tractor during conference calls about project updates.

Admitted to driving a tractor? Seems like operating heavy equipment isn’t really a sensory gray area. But all this is easily fixed with a simple rule that is so obvious that most people don’t need it spelled out for them: No loud background noises while you’re on a conference call.

The former manager, who declined to be identified because he still has ties with HP, said telecommuting morphed from a strategic tool used to keep exceptional talent into a right that employees claimed.

Sounds like this has more to do with bad management than with telecommuting itself. Managers who make it clear that telecommuting is a privilege find that employees work hard to earn the right to stay home and they also work hard to keep the valued perk. It’ll be interesting to see how much talent HP loses and to see if this move will have any sort of ripple effect. Article here. My recent piece on why managers should give telecommuting another look is here.