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Telework up, productivity down?

Efficiency, collaboration can take a hit when too many workers telecommute

By Tam Harbert
August 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When Hewlett-Packard Co.'s CIO Randall Mott pulled IT teleworkers back to the office in 2006, he said he was trying to foster better teamwork internally. HP was in the midst of a major IT overhaul, consolidating more than 85 data centers into six facilities.

Low productivity on collaborative projects was also the reason for Intel Corp.'s recent crackdown on IT teleworkers. (See "Get tough on telecommuting: 6 questions to ask before you say yes" to avoid a similar fate at your own company.)

Intel's move was not a change in policy, but rather a decision to enforce the rules around its existing policy, says Intel CIO Diane Bryant.

As part of a corporatewide efficiency review, Bryant found that lax application of those rules had allowed many IT workers to telecommute who didn't closely fit the company's three criteria: that their job was appropriate for teleworking; that the employee was senior enough, mature enough and self-disciplined enough to work remotely; and that remote employees remained as productive in the telework arrangement as they were in the office.

That laxness in turn led to inefficiency, she says. The number of teleworkers in IT was low to begin with -- only 250 out of 6,000, according to Bryant -- but even so, most Intel IT jobs require a lot of collaboration. The company found that breaking up projects among remote workers led to roughly a 20% to 30% drop in efficiency.

"There [was] a layer of inefficiency in fixing problems that would not [have been] there had the two people been sitting next to each together in the same building," she says. So Intel started requiring more than half of those IT workers -- 150 out of 250 -- to report to the office at least four days a week.

Although Bryant is frank in her assessment of the current state of remote work -- "telecommuting inhibits collaboration," she says -- she has high hopes that collaborative technologies such as videoconferencing and online social networks will improve in performance and decline in cost enough to enable broader teleworking in the future.

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