Freedom and Space

Freedom and Space

HP CEO Meg Whitman just announced that HP employees will no longer be able to telecommute because the company will need “all hands on deck” at the corporate offices. Few details emerged on who these telecommuters were or what they were doing from their homes. The announcement was strangely similar to another by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer a couple months ago. In both cases, the argument was that colocation would lead to increased productivity through teamwork and enhanced collaboration.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

HP CEO Meg Whitman just announced that HP employees will no longer be able to telecommute because the company will need "all hands on deck" at the corporate offices. Few details emerged on who these telecommuters were or what they were doing from their homes. The announcement was strangely similar to another by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer a couple months ago. In both cases, the argument was that co-location would lead to increased productivity through teamwork and enhanced collaboration.

Both announcements met with criticism from the tech community. Telecommuting has long been considered the wave of the future. Yet it isn't like Whitman and Mayer are living in the stone age. What I found so interesting about the announcements of HP and Yahoo, as well as Microsoft's continuing preference for its huge corporate campus in Redmond and Apple's mission to build a gigantic spaceship-like headquarters for all its South-Bay employees, is how boldly this version of reality contradicts the story we are getting from the dozens of vendors hawking "remote collaboration" products. I don't know how many press releases I read every month from companies with amazing tools designed to help users collaborate from far away, yet many of the leading tech companies are saying they don't want their employees far away.

Are the actions of HP and Yahoo desperate attempts to return to the past? Did these foundering companies fail to get the message that the remote reality of social networking is replacing the need for face-to-face communication? Or is the telecommuting revolution a failed experiment? Have these visionary vendors rediscovered what everyone used to already know: face time matters. If a professional life lived through Skype and SharePoint is unequal to a life with heartbeats and three dimensions, what does that say about a social life lived through Facebook?

I've worked in an office and I've worked remotely, and I can see that both options have benefits. Now I operate from a small office, but I have co-workers who work off site, and the whole scene fits together pretty efficiently. But maybe this isn't even about productivity.

Another side to the story that didn't come up in the announcements from HP and Yahoo is the political cost for long-term leases of empty real estate. HP and Yahoo have both cut thousands of jobs the past couple years. You might think the office space expands and contracts neatly around the size of the workforce, but it isn't quite that simple. Office spaces are often attached to multiyear leases, and the lease doesn't go away just because no one is left to fill the space. I once worked for a company that was paying the rent on a whole empty building with enough room for 300 people that they had leased a few months before the dot-com bubble turned to dust. They had a whole warehouse full of expensive office furniture that was supposed to be in that empty building, and cash-strapped middle managers from other parts of the company could come and pick through it post-apocalyptically if they needed a printer cart or a reception desk.

Such spectacles take a toll on the corporate image. One of the big benefits for a company that supports telecommuters is you don't have to lease office space for all those people. But if you have leased the space anyway and can't get rid of it, you don't really save any money by letting it sit empty. Not only that, but vast, ghostly, vacant office spaces become an awkward and embarrassing symbol of the company's hard times. Better to fill those spaces with people and take flak from recalled telecommuters than to let them fall fallow in an eerie fluorescent sunset, inviting continual grumbling from shareholders and reporters over why they were ever leased in the first place.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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