Workforce.com

HP Downshifts Telecommuting

June 28, 2006
Consider it a detour in the "HP Way," and a controversial one at that.

Computer maker Hewlett-Packard recently curtailed telecommuting options for hundreds of employees. HP calls the move a key to reshaping its information technology unit. But the decision marks a shift from the company’s famed support of flexible work arrangements. What’s more, some telecommuting advocates say work-at-home policies make more sense now than ever, and that by withdrawing the option, HP risks losing talented employees.

"It’s surprising," says Robert Smith, director of ITAC, a nonprofit group that promotes telework. He says flexible work is "a very critical component" of the types of jobs that tech professionals are seeking.

A subset of employees in HP’s IT organization, which is the group that manages the company’s internal business software and computers, will no longer be able to work from home regularly. Some may have to relocate, according to a decision made earlier this year.

HP chief information officer Randall Mott made the change as part of a plan to increase face-to-face interaction and increase team effectiveness in the IT unit. It comes as the company is reducing its number of IT facilities from about 100 to 25 and trimming costs in the unit. HP declined to state how many employees work in its IT group.

HP said its companywide policy on telecommuting hasn’t changed.

"Telework arrangements are still available to employees with management approval where the program is appropriate for that individual and his or her specific job assignment," HP said in a statement. In addition, more than 100 employees within the company’s IT group will still be able to telecommute.

The company also said it is offering relocation assistance for IT employees who live more than 50 miles from a designated office.

HP has been known as a leader when it comes to flexible work policies. The company, based in Palo Alto, California, has a total of about 150,000 workers worldwide. About 11,400 employees currently telecommute; most of them are based in the U.S.

About 45 million American workers telecommuted regularly last year, with about half working at home at least one day a week, says Chuck Wilsker, CEO of the Telework Coalition. Wilsker, whose nonprofit group is partly funded by firms selling products for remote work setups, predicts the number of U.S. telecommuters will climb 10 percent this year. Better collaboration technologies, a tighter job market and higher gas prices are fueling the rise, he says.

Even the recent data breach involving the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should not set back the telecommuting cause, Wilsker says. In that incident, computer equipment with personal information for as many as 26.5 million veterans, spouses and current military personnel was stolen from the home of a VA employee. Wilsker predicts that employers will turn to smarter practices, such as keeping vital data on central computers.

"Technology exists to eliminate the basis of that breach," he says. "Secure remote access has been around for a while."

Smith, whose organization is the telework advisory group of human resources professional association WorldatWork, says techies tend to value telecommuting, given that they’re often expected to be on call to handle computer problems at virtually any hour. They need some flexibility in return, he says.

Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant, says HP may be trying to rein in what it regards as an excessive amount of working from home. In general, a staff where 90 percent of employees telecommute each day can breed collaboration problems, he says. "It’s a matter of degree," he says. "They may have had too many people out too many days of the week."

--Ed Frauenheim