I have worked from home since the first time InfoWorld fired me in 1994. When you work at home you live at work, which is precisely why telecommuting has been so embraced by non-smokestack industries that love the low office rents and longer working hours. But the tide may be turning against working at home for some larger companies. Lockheed-Martin, for example, effectively banned the practice recently, sucking nearly all the company’s telecommuters back into the office. IBM, too, is rethinking its work-at-home strategy.
Lockheed earlier this year told its managers they all had to work from plant sites, then followed that by canceling any telecommuting services paid for by the company. In theory workers can still telecommute on an occasional basis, but only on their own dime and only if they score a three or above on L-M’s five-step performance review.
As a defense contractor Lockheed-Martin may be a special case, not so much for the security reasons one might imagine in the wake of Wikileaks, but rather because defense plants tend to be owned not by the contractor but by the government. In today’s austerity it could be that Uncle Sam wants his share of the savings from all that staying home. If Lockheed wants the Feds to cover that light bill there had better be some bodies being lighted. This is pure speculation on my part, though informed by a small role I played 30 years ago in a battle between Stanford University and the Office of Naval Research over billing for indirect costs of research, which is very similar and equally byzantine.
IBM, too, is pulling back somewhat from telecommuting, though Big Blue has no government-owned facilities for those workers sucked back into the mother ship. IBM literally has more workers than desks.
At IBM’s new delivery centers like Dubuque, IA, Boulder, CO, and Columbia MO they now want all the IBMers to work in the office, in sight of management.
Teams are usually more efficient when people can work together. Part-time telecommuting often works best. Then IBM decided everyone would telecommute followed by making the teams geographically dispersed. Now people can work together for years without ever meeting in person.
IBM went too far with telecommuting. In their haste to close offices they made mistakes, distributing teams that had been more efficient working physically together. In this case efficiency often means that oxymoron bureaucrafic efficiency. When something was needed fast at IBM they used to be able to fill out the paperwork and hand carry it to the group, eventually finding someone who could handle the problem on the spot. Now all requests go into a big queue in the sky and nobody knows who will handle it, or from what country. There is no longer a way to push urgent matters through faster, no way to get them solved by the right expert, either. Worse still, requests can be rejected and deleted from the queue without notice. In a very bureaucratic company like IBM, just buying something may need 4-6 approvals with a queue for each. Telecommuting inadvertently turned the complex into the nearly impossible.
Luckily for IBM, somebody has apparently noticed this snafu. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, though IBM has found a way to screw-up that, too. The new system features low cost delivery centers with terribly inexperienced teams of workers. IBM can’t seem to hold onto what is good. They throw out both the good and the bad for the sake of change.
Which brings us back to Lockheed-Martin and that performance evaluation of three or better needed to qualify for telecommuting. Suddenly there are a lot of Lockheed managers getting ratings in the two range for the first time in their careers. This is a subliminal effect since employees often don’t share their ratings with co-workers, but it is definitely happening. What’s interesting (and sad) about this is what it means for any future Lockheed layoffs. Next time the lower third is cut off, at least some wouldn’t be in that third had it not been for this telecommuting decision.
Management is cocking the pistol for workers they don’t like then allowing the next layoff to pull the trigger.