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.

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.

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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.