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Telework on the outs? No way

Nov 03, 20034 mins

Recent studies are used to exaggerate a decline in work/life benefits.

Recent studies are used to exaggerate a decline in work/life benefits

Merrill Lynch, poster child for telework since 1994, is now being touted by some as proof of the movement’s decline.

Recent research points to a dip in the number of employers offering work/life benefits. CCH’s survey of 400+ employers showed those offering telecommuting had dropped from 47% to 45%; job sharing had dropped from 37% to 30%; and compressed work weeks had dropped from 49% to 40%.

A survey of human resources managers conducted in June by the Society of Human Resource Managers (SHRM) showed 55% of their firms were offering flextime (comprising various work/life benefits), down from 64% in 2002.

SHRM says its survey doesn’t prove a drop in work/life programs, but more of “a plateau due to the economy,” a spokesperson for the group says. “Any decline has been limited to typically between 1% and 2%. The surprise comes for many because family friendly benefits have been on such a steep rise for so many years.”

Back to Merrill Lynch. One of several negative telework stories circulated recently was by AP reporter Adam Geller. Geller says “belt tightening at Merrill hints at changes in many companies,” implying that by closing its telework lab and restructuring its HR department, Merrill has abandoned its commitment to telework.

Nonsense. No one would argue Merrill’s had a tough couple of years. But those were smart business moves. The lab, where novice teleworkers spent a week learning to work remotely, was ahead of its time back in 1994. But today, the lab seems quaint and irrelevant. 

“It’s not just that we’ve fallen on hard times. We’re changing the way we do things,” says Selena Morris, the Merrill representative Geller interviewed. “We didn’t tell our employees they can’t work from home anymore, or they can’t do flextime. There’s no pressure coming from the top down about telework. Stan O’Neil, our new chairman, has made it very clear to employees that Merrill is a meritocracy. What really matters is the kind of work you’re producing and the kind of commitment you have to the job and the firm.” 

Surveys are a funny thing. If your HR manager is sent a survey from SHRM asking whether your firm offers work/life programs, he might answer yes or no, but neither will necessarily capture what’s going on in the firm. Flextime benefits are slippery, more difficult to track than say, employers who offer benefits to employees’ same sex partners. A lot of telework and flexible arrangements are handled under HR’s radar — even companies with established, formal telework programs.

Morris confirms it: “We never tracked the numbers of teleworkers. A lot of people never went through the program, not officially. In such a big firm, it’s hard to know who’s doing what, formally.”

Of course, it’s still an employers’ market. But that doesn’t mean smart companies won’t offer flextime to good employees, especially if faced with losing them.

At Network World, many of our talented reporters have recently started families. (We recently got together and the baby pictures flew everywhere!) Our HR department doesn’t tout our telework or work/life benefits, but we enjoy them just the same. Many of us work from home full time, some work compressed weeks, and many in-office reporters routinely work from home. But should our market improve, and we start competing hard for talent again, will we tout our progressive management style? You bet.

So is telework really suffering? I don’t think so. But what about you? Is there evidence in your company that attitudes are changing for the worse? Is management demanding more face time? Do you know coworkers who’ve been called back into the office? If so, please let me know. Of course, I’ll keep the info confidential.