HP Telework Limits Driven By Internal Changes

Mott pulls IT workers back to offices; move aligns with his goals, say CIOs

An eyebrow-raising decision by Hewlett-Packard Co. to put a stop to telecommuting by some of its IT staffers isn't a signal that the idea of working from home is falling out of favor at large companies. But it does show that telecommuting has its limits within IT organizations, several executives said last week.

Indeed, some of HP CIO Randall Mott's corporate IT peers said that he probably had no choice but to curb telecommuting because of what he's trying to accomplish at the IT vendor. Mott is consolidating more than 85 data centers into six facilities, creating an enterprise data warehouse to give end users a centralized view of data and overhauling the way the company manages IT projects.

Telecommuting by large numbers of employees works best when there are "tried and true" processes in place, not when a company is heading in new IT directions, said Stephen Pickett, CIO at Penske Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and president of the Chicago-based Society for Information Management.

SIM has studied the effectiveness of far-flung IT teams and has found that remote workers "can be as productive as people in the office," according to Pickett. Moreover, he said, tapping workers scattered around the globe to take part in a project can be advantageous "because you get the benefit of having multiple cultures attacking the problem."

But the situation at HP isn't ideal for telecommuting, Pickett added. "By taking 85 of anything and making it six, you are dealing with new practices," he said. "And until those are established and people understand and feel comfortable with them, you can't afford to experiment."

Mott said at Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference in March that HP had too many teleworkers within IT and that he planned to reduce the number of people working outside the office in an attempt to foster better teamwork internally. Last week, he said in an interview that the policy change HP has now implemented affects "multiple hundreds" of IT employees, who in some cases may have to relocate because the company is also reducing the total number of its IT facilities from about 100 to 25. Mott added that more than 100 workers in the IT organization will still be able to telecommute and that the changes don't affect HP's flex-time work policies, which remain available to all IT staffers.

Mott was hired by HP last July after previously being CIO at Dell Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The telecommuting changes are being driven, he said, by the aggressive IT plans he has put in place at HP, which has more than 500 active projects that require heavy amounts of teamwork and cross-functional collaboration. In addition, the IT department needs to transform the skills of workers as it adopts new tools, Mott said.

"I really don't view what we're doing to be very different than what a lot of what I would consider leading-edge IT organizations do," he said. "We do allow [telecommuting] where it makes sense and where the jobs and the skills and the individual's performance has warranted it. But in a lot of cases, it certainly benefits both the individual and the business to really put these teams together."

HP has a total of 11,400 employees who currently telecommute, most of them in the U.S., a company spokeswoman said in a written response to questions. She added that HP's overall policy on out-of-the-office work hasn't changed. "The IT organization has made a specific business decision to provide guidelines that locate more team members together," the spokeswoman wrote.

One trend that may help foster further increases in the use of telecommuting is the interest that companies are showing in developing remote work capabilities as part of their business continuity plans, said Phil Zweig, vice president of information systems at The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Milwaukee.

But Zweig said that telecommuting may be difficult when it comes to processes that require "heavy-duty interaction," especially when a company is starting a new IT project. "The kickoff, the process-definition requirements -- that's far more difficult to do from a telecommuting perspective," he said. From that standpoint, HP's decision to limit telecommuting by its IT staffers didn't surprise Zweig.

Still, he said he sees the ability to offer employees some workplace flexibility as a continuing requirement, especially among younger workers. Northwestern Mutual is currently exploring the idea of instituting a formal telecommuting program within IT, which lacks one now, Zweig said.

Industry analysts said that telecommuting is on the rise and that younger workers in particular expect it to be available as an option.

Indeed, 36% of the 27,108 IT workers who responded to a survey conducted by Computerworld in January gave telecommuting's importance as a job benefit the highest possible ranking on a scale of 1 to 10. That put it fifth on the list of benefits deemed to be "extremely important" by respondents to the survey, which is conducted annually as part of the process of choosing Computerworld's 100 Best Place to Work in IT.

Gil Gordon, a telecommuting consultant in Monmouth Junction, N.J., said he gives Mott the benefit of the doubt and assumes that HP's CIO inherited "a situation where there was some kind of a problem that he was brought in to fix, and he chose to deal with it with an all-hands-on-deck approach." If that isn't the case, said Gordon, then the decision to curb telecommuting "looks terribly shortsighted."

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The average annual cost of supporting an office worker in the U.S. is $10,000 to $12,500, including building expenses.
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In some major markets, the support costs can reach $18,500 per year for each employee in an office.
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For a teleworker, the annual cost, including IT support and connectivity expenditures, is about $2,400 on average.

Source: Deloitte Consulting

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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