In the 1970s, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) popularized the idea of “management by walking around”—MBWA for short. Top executives and group directors would cruise about so that they could get feedback and a sense of company morale directly, while also imparting business goals and a corporate ethos sans the middleman. Reed Hastings, chief executive officer of Netflix (NFLX), practices an extreme version today, eschewing an office altogether in favor of working at random places around the company’s headquarters.
Over the years, HP’s fondness for MBWA faded. Executives cloistered themselves in spacious offices while the rank and file packed into cubicles. When HP’s real estate costs spiraled out of control, many employees were told to skip the commute and work from home. (This still happens, by the way: The Arizona Republic recently encouraged employees to set up shop at McDonald’s (MCD) and Starbucks (SBUX).)
Well, the touchy-feely days are back again at HP. Sort of. The company appears to have issued a new edict calling for more employees to show up at the office more often. The hope is that this will foster more collaboration and that—just like the good old days—HP employees can get directives from managers, in person.
Led by Meg Whitman, HP remains in the midst of a protracted restructuring. The new policy, according to an internal memo making the rounds, fits in with the revival bid. According to the memo:
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.
Upon hearing about HP’s decision, folks in Silicon Valley have been quick to link it to a similar move made months ago at Yahoo! (YHOO) by Marissa Mayer. Apparently, turning up at an office is the hip, new thing to do, particularly for companies in turnaround mode.
The twist is that both HP and Yahoo are among hundreds of companies that over the past 20 or so years have tried to improve collaboration technology and adapt it to the Internet era. E-mail, Skype (MSFT), WebEx (CSCO), Lync, Box, and all the rest ought to have eliminated most of the practical barriers to working remotely. Yet we continue to be reminded that our trove of collaboration technology just doesn’t cut it. People tend to do more amazing things when they’re located among other people.
Whether or not Whitman can transform HP remains an open question. What we’ve been seeing, though, is that she embraces some practices—getting rid of executive suites, putting fresh paint on HP’s headquarters—that are both symbolic and pragmatic. It was probably only a matter of time before she’d actually want people to start coming into the office, too.