About 43% of American employees work remotely “at least sometimes” and 31% work remotely 80% to 100% of the time, according to a recent Gallup poll. But what happens when those remote working arrangements change?
Earlier this year, IBM issued an ultimatum to thousands of its remote workers: Come work at a regional office or cease to be one of the company’s employees. The company cited the need for environments that foster creativity in its decision, and it’s paying moving costs for affected workers, in addition to providing severance packages for those who choose not to comply.
In 2013, Yahoo put its remote workers on notice that in less than 4 months, they would be required to work in one of the company offices. In the notice, Yahoo cited the need for greater communication and collaboration as one of the reasons leading to this decision. It also stated that speed and quality might be sacrificed when employees work from home.
Cheryl Palmer, M.Ed, CECC, the founder of Call to Career, a career coaching firm in Washington, D.C., tells GoodCall®, “It is worth noting that both IBM and Yahoo are tech firms, and both of them decided to take back the option of telecommuting when it was clear that their business was declining.”
Palmer says that IBM is trying something new in an attempt to become more profitable, and she believes this is also what drove Yahoo’s decision. “The thinking is: if IBM can increase collaboration by calling their workers back into the office, this will increase their agility and thereby boost revenues – but it remains to be seen whether or not this strategy will work.”
This may also be what drove Best Buy – in 2013 – to end its Results Only Work Environment in the company’s headquarters. Under ROWE, employees were evaluated based solely on performance instead of how many hours they worked each week. The end of the option to work remotely came on the heels of the company’s decision to lay off 400 corporate employees.
Is it risky business to work remotely?
While a change in the arrangement to work remotely can pose major problems – especially for workers who might have to consider relocation options – Cheyenne, WY-based Dustin Berger, an employment attorney at Holland & Hart LLP, believes that most jobs have a degree of risk.
Berger tells GoodCall®, “Workers often take a job with the expectation of continuity in the terms of their employment, and they may well expect that their work location or the start time of their work period will remain consistent.” But he says work arrangements are always subject to change.
Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in San Diego, and an affiliated research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, believes that there are legitimate reasons for companies to change course. “These reasons are as individual as the organizations,” Deal tells GoodCall®.
And, while Berger believes that consistency is usually a reasonable expectation, he agrees with Deal that there are often valid explanations for withdrawing the option to work remotely. In fact, Berger lists several reasons:
- A move
- A facility closure
- A merger or reorganization
- A new management team with a different approach
- The addition of a client whose requirements are inconsistent with remote work
- The need for more collaboration
- The need to quell conflicts when certain workers are permitted to work remotely while others are denied this option
There are even more reasons why a company might reverse its policy to allow employees to work remotely. For example, Deal explains, “For people who are new to a company or the workforce, it is easier to learn how the organization works if you can spend time with people.”
According to Palmer, many companies believe that training and supervision benefit from face-to-face interactions. A recent survey reveals that Americans blame a lack of training for a lack of promotions. “Distance learning is not quite the same as hands-on training in the office,” Palmer explains. “And, of course if workers are physically in the office, managers have greater control over them and are able to see what they are doing on a regular basis.”
But even when there has been no easily-identifiable change at all, companies have the right to change course. “It’s legal and fair for a business to decide that, after experimenting with remote work, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages,” Berger says. “Anecdotally, it seems to be a common trend that employers are disappointed when they begin to accommodate remote workers, because their expectations regarding the work relationship were forged around the in-person relationship and, in many cases, our experiences with collaboration are formed from in-person relationships.”
Of course, all these reasons are cold comfort to remote workers facing one of the toughest work decisions. Some of them make other choices based on this arrangement. For example, a couple may decide to maintain only one car or plan childcare around the home-bound partner.
Also, a remote worker might accept a lower salary if transportation, meals, and clothing are not major factors. Employees need to eat regardless, but going to the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal or warm up leftovers is a lot cheaper than purchasing lunch every day. And, while work-at-home employees can wear pajamas or jeans, if the office requires a professional appearance, there’s the added cost of purchasing business attire.
However, Deal warns, “It is best to assume that organizations can change the rules at any time.”
And whether workers agree with changes to their work arrangement or not, Berger says it’s a free employment market. “Employees should understand that, legally speaking, employers have nearly total control over work situations unless the employer has made a contractual commitment to certain terms or conditions of employment,” Berger says.
For what it’s worth, he says that companies answer to investors and customers, and sometimes, these forces drive the organization’s changes.
“The upside for employees without a contract is that they’re also always free to make changes, and despite some high-profile concerns about remote work, employers are still generally trending in the direction of comfort and acceptance of alternative work situations,” Berger explains.
And so, perhaps it’s best to be cautiously optimistic. In other words, expect the best, but anticipate the worst. “Just because you took a job for its flexibility does not mean that option will always be available to you,” Palmer says. “It’s best to have a Plan B just in case the company changes its mind about telecommuting.”
Staying abreast of the fastest-growing skills in the online job market is one way for remote workers to make themselves more marketable.