BY CAROL PATTON
Over this past year, roughly 5,000 U.S. employees who telecommuted at IBM were
brought back into the office as part of
the company’s plan to evolve how work
The tech giant has been building
“agile” or flexible hubs all over the
country, which are employee teams,
often multidisciplinary, that work
collaboratively in the same space.
Envision developers, marketers and
sales professionals collectively working
on the same product in the same office.
“Changing business demands
have led to a new work culture,”
says Carrie Altieri, vice president of
communications, people and culture
at the Armonk, N. Y.-based technology
company. “For us, that new work
culture is agile.”
Ironically, creating an agile work
environment can involve limiting a
popular employee benefit—telework.
For some companies, the practice
hasn’t held up its end of the bargain.
Consider that IBM, Yahoo, Google and
Best Buy have reversed their direction
on telecommuting by either restricting
or ending work-from-home programs.
Indeed, the appeal of telework has
diminished at a small but growing
number of employers over the past
couple of years, with some companies
concluding that such workers are
not as productive, engaged, creative,
responsive or flexible when adapting to
changing market demands.
As an extension of this shift
in thinking, HR professionals are
increasingly being forced to re-evaluate
the policies and practices they have in
place as it pertains to how and where
work is getting done.
Empowered On-site Teams
Back in the early ’90s, Altieri says,
IBM had as many as 40 percent of its
380,000 global employees working
remotely. But in recent years, she says,
the company began exploring ways to
address “the relentless forces of change
and time pressures” that are inherent in
the digital era.
IBM invested $380 million in
modernizing U.S. workspaces at its
headquarters and many of its offices,
including those in Austin, Texas, San
Francisco, New York and Rochester, Minn.
These workspaces include moveable
desks and walls and writeable walls.
Large corporations such as IBM,
Yahoo and Best Buy have recently
started to bring workers who
telecommute back inside. Is it time for
others to follow in their footsteps?
• Monthly telework—where
employees work at home at least once
a month—increased from 56 percent
in 2015 to 61 percent in 2017.
• Weekly telecommuting—where
employees worked remotely at least
one day per week—increased from 53
percent to 61 percent over that period.
• Telework on a full-time basis
increased from 34 percent to 38
percent over that period.
“We definitely saw an increase
in the use of telework on an ad-hoc
basis,” says Alison Avalos, director
of research and certification at
Worldat Work. By adopting an ad-hoc
strategy, she says, companies can
prevent or minimize an entitlement
mentality among teleworkers and
be more flexible as their business
needs change, since telecommuting
isn’t ingrained into anyone’s work
Still, moving away from telework
is no easy feat. In many workplaces,
employees have grown so accustomed
to working from home that it’s
perceived as standard practice and no
longer a benefit or reward.
Avalos points out that this creates a
major challenge for HR professionals:
balancing company needs with
employee expectations. She believes
HR, for now, will continue to offer a
combination of ad-hoc telecommuting
and work-from-home programs.
One approach might involve
re-acquainting employees with the
benefits of working on-site and the
disadvantages of remote work through
articles in in-house newsletters or
during staff meetings. Some believe
HR also needs to do more research
regarding any adverse effects for
remote workers regarding career
mobility, promotions or assignments
that involve plum projects.
At first glance, on-site benefits can
be very impressive. Take Google. On-site employees are able to access free
gourmet cafeterias, massage rooms,
nap pods, and even get haircuts,
says John McClendon, associate
professor and chair of the HR
management department at Temple
Altieri says the purpose is to
showcase everyone’s work, stimulate
innovation and present learning
opportunities on how to streamline
tasks or avoid duplicative efforts. “This
level of collaboration and co-creation
gets the product out faster . . .,” she
says. “Small self-directed teams are
empowered to make decisions and
don’t have to go back to a manager to
get approval for every step.”
Looking back, however, she says
employee reaction to agile hubs
has been mixed. Of the nearly 5,000
telecommuters, approximately half were
given 90 days to find another job at IBM—
either remote or on-site. The remainder
was given an 18-month runway to
relocate to agile hubs in different cities.
Between 10 percent and 13 percent
either quit or were terminated.
The process of identifying which
positions to move into “agile hubs” was
“very surgical,” says Altieri. Coders,
marketers, IT professionals, office staff
and offering managers—those who
work with developers, designers and
others to make great products—were
among those selected.
So far, Altieri says, the move to scale
back certain telework positions seems
to be delivering results. Agile teams,
she says, cut the rollout of cloud-based
software by 30 percent when compared
to similar rollouts. In HR, she adds,
agile recruiting teams slashed the
hiring process from 85 days to 45 days
and doubled the satisfaction of IBM
hiring managers who worked with
“We know this is working because
of faster outcomes,” Altieri says,
adding that the company still supports
flexible work practices and thousands of
remote workers. “But when you make a
change, it’s always a challenge to have
[employees] understand it … . We gave
them plenty of time to make a move.”
Examine Both Sides
Flexible work schedules are still
widely supported by employers.
Based on Mercer’s 2016/2017
US Compensation Policies and
Practices Survey, about one-quarter
of organizations have a formal
flexplace policy while one-third
have an informal flexplace policy for
Not surprisingly, results from
Mercer’s 2017 Global Talent Trends
Study reveals that the majority of
employees want more flexibility
while 40 percent of HR respondents
acknowledge that offering more
flexible ways to work would improve
their employees’ ability to thrive.
But that said, employees are also
concerned that working remotely
would negatively impact their
There’s no doubt that
telecommuting is evolving.
Worldat Work, a global HR association
based in Scottsdale, Ariz., published
a 2017 Trends in Workplace Flexibility
report, which gathered 279 responses
from its members.
Comparing the organization’s 2017
results with a similar survey it conducted
in 2015, the research found that:
• Telecommuting on an ad-hoc
basis has shown significant growth
lately. (Eighty-nine percent now offer
this program, compared to 85 percent