AT&T calls teleworkers back to cubicle life

Some say long-running telework program in jeopardy since 2005 acquisition by SBC Communications

AT&T, a company that once was a poster child for telecommuting, is downsizing its long-running telework program and requiring employees who work in virtual offices to return to traditional office sites.

AT&T, a company that once was a poster child for telecommuting, is downsizing its long-running telework program and requiring thousands of employees who work from their homes and other virtual offices to return to traditional AT&T office environments, according to sources.

“It is a serious effort to reel in the telework people,” says Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalitions, an organization in Washington, D.C., that promotes telework through education and legislative efforts.

“We have been getting calls and e-mails from very unhappy AT&T teleworking employees who are being told that they will no longer be allowed to telework,” says Wilsker, who has heard that as many as 10,000 or 12,000 full-time teleworkers may be affected.

A spokesman in AT&T’s San Antonio, Texas, headquarters denies there are broad-scale plans to end teleworking arrangements, but acknowledges there may be some isolated cases. “Teleworking is at the discretion of the business,” says Walt Sharp, the spokesman.

He says AT&T is in the process of reconciling the human resources policies of the legacy AT&T, SBC Communications, which acquired AT&T in 2005; BellSouth, which was acquired in late 2006; and the former Cingular wireless operation, previously co-owned by BellSouth and AT&T.

“We have recently merged [these] very large companies, each of which has separate policies on everything, and we’re in the process of integrating all of those policies and coming up with integrated policies for AT&T overall,” Sharp says. “I believe the teleworking policy is expected to be integrated some time next year.”

One AT&T employee, who has teleworked for more than five years, told Network World he and his team members received notice in late September that they need to resume working in an AT&T physical office “as soon as possible.”

The news was not entirely unexpected, he says, since rumors have been circulating since AT&T’s merger with SBC that the new upper management was not supportive of virtual offices. “We’d heard rumors to that effect, and all of a sudden we got marching orders to go back to an office.”

The employee says he was told the decision to end telework arrangements would apply broadly across the company and reflects a policy change by AT&T -- though that contradicts AT&T’s statement to Network World. “It’s crazy; I don’t understand it,” the employee says. “We’re a networking and communications company.”

“The effort to terminate [virtual offices] has been a silent one except for the voices of affected employees,” he adds. “Word of mouth is spreading it in within the company.”

Telework advocates have loaded praise on AT&T over the years for its telework program, which the telecommunications company formalized in 1992 and grew to become one of the largest and most successful in the nation.

Before the SBC deal, participation in AT&T’s telework program had been widespread. In 2005, AT&T reported that about 90% of its management employees teleworked, including 30% who worked full time from locations other than an AT&T facility. Another 40% teleworked regularly, AT&T said at the time, while 20% worked from home occasionally when required for business continuity reasons.

Enabling employees to telework has been lucrative for the company. AT&T was able to slash its annual real estate costs by $30 million and gained $150 million in extra hours of productive work from teleworkers, the company told Network World in 2005

AT&T’s effort to recall some of its mobile ranks goes against current telework adoption trends by U.S. companies. A recent survey of HR managers by outsourcing provider Yoh found that 81% of companies have remote-work policies in place and 67% of respondents said they expect telecommuting will increase in the next two years. (HP last year brought some teleworkers back to corporate facilities, but its recall was part of an IT reorganization and was limited to IT staff.)

Federal government agencies, meanwhile, are under the gun to bolster their telecommuting ranks, as required by legislation. Among the drivers for public and private industry alike are the opportunities to reduce real estate costs, improve employee morale and retention rates, lessen transportation burdens and strengthen business continuity plans.

“I’m at a loss to understand AT&T’s reasons or motives for this,” Wilsker says. “I find it especially interesting that one of the reasons the old AT&T established a telework program was for environmental reasons, and now that more organizations are jumping on the telework bandwagon as a means of helping to improve our air quality, AT&T has jumped off.”

Over the years, AT&T received more than 10 honors for its telework program, including earning in 2005 the Telework Coalition’s first Hall of Fame Award for “Practicing What They Preach.”

In a statement released at the time of the award, Wilsker said: “We established this award because we have frequently spoken with organizations that sell systems and/or services that enable telework, in one way or another, but do not offer a telework option to their own employees. This is definitely not the case with AT&T. They are a leader in supplying global networking to customers, and a leader in using it themselves.”

That no longer appears to be the case. “We gave them the award because they sold it and they used it,” Wilsker says of AT&T’s telework-enabling technologies. “Now we’re trying to figure out how we can take it back.”

AT&T’s telework resource site, once contained content for employees and managers, including case studies, tips for developing a business case, dos and don’ts, and policy documents. The link is no longer active.

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