A Better Way for HP to Boost Performance

Meg Whitman, chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard. Photograph by Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg

Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Meg Whitman has rekindled the debate over whether to telecommute with a memo urging employees to show up at the office more often. She wrote that “HP needs all hands on deck” to foster engagement and collaboration during its turnaround.

Whitman joins Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer in blaming telecommuting for all-too-common issues, such as silo mentality and mediocre effort, which hobble business performance.

This approach is misguided and flies in the face of the laws of human behavior. What’s more, it’s likely to be counterproductive.

Leaders targeting telecommuting miss the point: Employees working from home are not the cause of poor financial performance or lackluster product innovation, and across-the-board policies forcing them back to the office won’t solve the issues restraining growth. Rather, executives need to address basic management practices that affect behavior and performance—no matter where employees work.

Organizations that forbid working from home are losing an opportunity to shape individual behavior. Employees who enjoy working at home will often work more than the compulsory company hours because they are so engrossed in their work—and don’t have to commute. Depriving people who thrive at home of this option could dampen their commitment.

Whether or not someone works from home is typically based on the job, not the performer. This is a fundamental management error. Regardless of the job, some people perform better in the office than they do at home, and the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, some people would rather work in the office than at home.

The solution: Offer employees the opportunity to earn the privilege of telecommuting. Set clear criteria for those interested and give them a chance to earn and maintain the perk. Those who deliver consistently high performance in the office will do the same at home—if they prefer a home environment. Videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies can enhance virtual workers’ productivity, making their locations nearly transparent.

Whitman, and others calling telecommuters back to the office, need to recognize that although an individualized approach will take some management time, the investment will pay off. With a hand in determining where they work, employees will be motivated to perform their best—in the office or at home.