3 New Battles in the Fight Over the Flexible Workplace

If 2013 has been a year of telework controversy, October is raising the bar.

Its first two weeks have brought several strong – and conflicting – voices to the debate: FFWO, HP, and One Million for Work Flexibility.

  • FFWO – San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in early October to adopt the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, requiring that businesses with more than 20 employees must allow them to request flexible schedules without retaliation. It became the first major U.S. city to do so.
  • HP – Due south of San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard’s relatively new CEO Meg Whitman, called for “all hands on deck,” summoning telecommuters back to the office via an unsigned Q&A.
  • M1llion – Meanwhile, a national coalition of flexibility advocates and users launched an online petition campaign in search of 1 million signers touting the benefits of flexibility (full disclosure: my firm, Rupert & Company, is a sponsor.)

Another precinct is heard from, and more could weigh in

Each of these moves is arguably a response to the telework/telecommuting tussle kicked off by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and her so-called telework ban last January. They occur in the legislative, popular and executive realms. What do they tell us about the state of play and the likely next acts in this continuing drama?

San Francisco’s ordinance is modeled on social legislation in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. There have been unsuccessful attempts to achieve such legislation in Washington, D.C., for many years. The Chamber of Commerce and business allies have been fierce and successful opponents.

David Chiu, President of the SF Board of Supervisors and chief sponsor of the FFWO has said quite clearly that he acted in response to Yahoo’s ban. As San Francisco becomes home to so many tech companies that it resembles “Silicon Valley North,” the Board of Supervisors overcame Chamber of Commerce opposition to put a modest family-friendly stake in the ground, to say that Yahoo-like behavior was not desirable.

Unrest in the blogosphere

More than a city responded to the telework ban. Teleworkers, conventional media, the blogosphere and conferences sensed a threat to telework and other forms of flexibility and stoked a chorus of opposition.

This fall organizers began an online effort to give voice to the grassroots supporters of flexibility. It is not clear where it will go beyond the goal of collecting a million signatures. Although initial support is largely from advocacy groups, consultants and individuals, the stated belief is that “efforts from individuals and corporate headquarters are needed in order to achieve more traction for change.”

Hewlett-Packard was an early leader of and in Silicon Valley – a mature start-up and an organizational innovator. It was not surprising, though it was startling, when HP introduced flextime in 1972, adopted a full flexible work menu ahead of the pack, and became an aggressive practitioner of telework and remote work at the end of the last century.

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Perhaps it was Meg Whitman’s political instincts or a more PR-prone HR group that led them to eschew a banning memo in favor of a non-attributed “Q&A document” that has been quietly distributed. It says in part:

During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck. We recognize that in the past, we may have asked certain employees to work from home for various reasons. We now need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration and the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be.”

The significance of this development is hard to tell.

HP is not the newer, weaker, less respected Yahoo, with a limited and hardly celebrated dabbling in flexibility. Meg Whitman is not a first-time CEO one year into a long shot gig; she is a seasoned success from eBay, a $160 million investor in her candidacy for California governor, hopeful architect of an HP turnaround. This low-profile event could have high impact on the “back to the office” momentum.

3 takeaways that jump out

Each of these developments is worth following and studying as they evolve. Looking at all of them, three themes emerge:

  1. Clear camps may be emerging. What started as a single company action may have launched a far more serious conversation and reexamination of how we work. The open response of companies like HP and the quiet murmurs of agreement we hear in the business community have begun to stir the action of those who can and want to have flexible schedules. This tension may pass or grow, but it has built rather than faded throughout this year.
  2. The C-Suite has been largely silent. Surely leadership opinion is diverse on this issue. Many companies have successfully used telework and remote work to satisfy employees, cut costs and support innovation. Where are their CEOs? Can they join the conversation?
  3. The irony of undoing collaboration to promote it. As I have written previously, we perceived “flexibility,” “telework,” etc. as the outcomes of an underlying process: collaborative scheduling. Managers and employees work together to create innovative ways of working. It is odd, at the least, that both the Yahoo memo and HP Q&A cite greater collaboration in the office as the reason to suspend collaboration in schedules.

If today’s trends continue, this 2013 issue will likely carry over to, and intensify in 2014.

Paul Rupert has collaborated with colleagues, clients and business leaders to embed flexibility in the workplace for the past 40 years. His consulting firm, Washington, DC-based Rupert & Company, has provided dozens of major employers with innovative strategies, training and online tools to build the flexibility the market will bear. Paul has played a leading role in developing flexibility systems in companies ranging from Aetna and AOL to Wal-Mart and Xerox, and is the architect of the Co Scheduling approach. Contact him at paulrupertdc@cs.com.

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5 Comments on “3 New Battles in the Fight Over the Flexible Workplace

  1. Well I have to weigh in here. I personally think this whole subject has been overblown.

    Yahoo says they pulled people back into the office as a means of getting everyone together physically to meet business challenges. Yes I know people can collaborate virtually but there is nothing more potent than f2f communication. Look at Google’s philosophy —- heck they even have an algorhythm (sp?) to specify how long the wait for the cafeteria cashier should be to get maximum communication/collaboration from employees waiting in line!

    HP is in trouble and I would guess that Meg Whitman is doing the same thing as Yahoo — bringing people back into the fold to create more “instant” communication, meetings, etc.

    We seem to be looking at this as a battle between companies and employees. Has virtual work become an entitlement? Maybe so. Companies don’t promise to continue any part of a compensation package. Are companies becoming “evil” and dreaming up ways to punish employees? I don’t think so. I think they are smart enough to know that telecommuting is well-liked by employees — and yet they believe it is more important to have “all hands on deck” literally. If they don’t think they can get something positive out of it — why would they do it? Just to be mean?

    Like it or not business comes first and if top management believes employees need to be physically at the office then so be it. Employees either trust top management that this is a good decision for the business or they don’t. Trust is important. If employees don’t understand then maybe they should ask management the reason for it.

    2014 will bring a lot of things. Maybe companies will stop contributing to 401(k)’s, stop offering free sodas and snacks, tuition reimbursement, healthcare, etc. Who knows? We could get just as worked up over that.

    Why don’t we just ask our management the reason first before getting our blood pressure up?

  2. What concerns me is the government dictating how businesses are run. Are we losing sight of capitalism and free enterprise when the government starts mandating company culture and operations? Most US government agencies are not shining examples of success and profitability right now…and I wonder how many of them offer “family friendly work schedules”.

  3. Even when the workforce is under one roof, they can be remote from one another. I have a neighbor who boards the Google bus for a one-hour commute each day and reports that no one talks – just relates to technology. Thanks, Paul, for the helpful overview on current trends in flexibility.

  4. Paul – I’m a strong advocate for the virtual employee, and it’s not because I want to work from home wearing my bunny slippers. I advocate for it because it addresses a number of issues simultaneously, and more importantly, the changing demographic in the workplace will demand it, and will migrate to those companies that offer it.

    Telecommuting has a huge environmental impact, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gasses caused by sitting in traffic during the daily commute, and reducing the need for the construction of additional office space, thereby limiting (hopefully) urban sprawl. A more subliminal benefit is the reduction of work related stress, which has reached epidemic proportions in our country.

    These reasons used by companies like Yahoo and HP to eliminate or drastically reduce this practice are really not valid, in my opinion. Today’s technology allows for both collaboration and engagement in the virtual environment, especially for the younger professionals who have entered the workforce, since they have already adopted the technology tools to communicate.

    All the excuses used by company’s relate to only one real issue: poor or non-existent remote management skills. Rather than swim upstream on flexible work schedules they should train their managers how to manage virtual employees.

  5. It’s interesting Meg Whitman of HP is calling for “all hands on deck”. The previous CEO, Mark Hurd, closed virtually every remote HP office in the United States. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard clearly understood HP offices were places of collaboration and information sharing, and they encouraged employees to come to the office with picnics, lunches, donuts, silly (but fun) contests, etc. Exactly what deck are HP employees supposed to report to?

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