There was a report today in the SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS that Hewlett-Packard’s CIO is leading a change in the telecommuting practices of the IT team. Telecommuting is coming to an end, for the most part. IT people are going to start having to show up at an HP office for most of the work week. CIO Randall Mott indicated that this will help less experienced staff learn to work more effectively.
One staff person was quoted as saying the only reason she worked for HP was because she could telecommute. [She wouldn’t identify herself. Well, at least that was smart.] The article also reported what is most likely a suburban corporate legend: one guy phoned into a meeting while riding on his tractor. [Well, I hope it’s a legend.] From what I understand, these folks are not freelancers or in-between-job contractors — they are employees with standard work weeks and compensation packages. The whole enchilada.
Beyond the fact that HP’s shift in practice should help some employees remember what a job is, it should enable staff, the company and shareholders to profit from a bunch of benefits: teamwork, exposure to the company persona, the ability for employees to influence and strengthen corporate values, higher productivity, office high jinks. And maybe we’ll have a test case for how telecommuting should be done in 2006. We may have come full circle given the speed and reach of technology. It’s worthwhile to verify that this speed and reach are not just funding someone’s swanky shower curtain at the expense of a full-time salary and ultimately, shareholder value.
Yet HP’s shift on telecommuting may turn out to be a gigantic lesson in something even bigger: assimilation. Great companies, like great countries, produce and perform measurably, clear about the ingredients essential to their raison d’etre, pouring them into the Kool-Aid. In HP’s case, maybe it’s bringing people back into shared office space to re-learn The HP Way, collaborate and even duke it out. After all, the company is coming out of a period in which many agree it lost that way. For another organization, it might be something different. Essentially, great companies decide which factors foster appropriate assimilation around a common set of goals and practices. They make assimilation enticing, giving employees reasons for deciding to come to work that reach beyond "me" while still satisfying "my" ambitions and desires.
When I studied in Italy, the professors taught us local customs, dress standards and the importance of at least trying to speak Italian. Most of us jumped in, but some students never bought it. They agreed to study for a year in a foreign country and then did everything they could to turn it into what they wanted it to be, never thinking about what they could contribute, only what they could take. They were just missing the point.