Arik Hesseldahl

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Yahoo Redux: HP Says “All Hands on Deck” Needed, Requiring Most Employees to Work at the Office (Memo)

Computing and technology services giant Hewlett-Packard, which appears to be taking a page from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, has quietly begun enacting a policy requiring employees to work from the office and not from home.

While it hasn’t yet reached the level of a company-wide directive with the same jarring effect as a new policy put in place by Yahoo earlier this year, HP employees are being told by bosses that if they can work at the office, they should work at the office.

According to an undated question-and-answer document distributed recently to some HP employees and shared with AllThingsD, the new policy is aimed at instigating a cultural shift that “will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation.”

It continued: “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.”

The move is being seen as part of a wider company turnaround effort sought by CEO Meg Whitman, who will be giving the latest updates on that turnaround effort at a meeting of analysts in San Jose on Wednesday.

According to a source who has been involved with internal meetings on the subject, it’s not, strictly speaking, an outright ban on working from home. Instead, the rules governing working from home are being tightened, and decisions about who gets to do it will now be made at a higher management level than before. Those details are said to be not yet finalized, and it’s not clear when or if the policy is to be announced company-wide.

I asked HP about this, and got the following statement back from a spokesman:

“Over the past several years, HP has been focused on developing workplaces that attract employees to the office and encourage effective and collaborative work. Our investments in real estate and IT infrastructure have made it possible to now accommodate more employees in the office and also support new styles of working which we believe will further HP’s business strategies and objectives. Flexibility continues to be a core operating principle at HP.”

It’s unclear exactly how many HP employees will be affected by the policy shift, as the company doesn’t disclose how many employees work from home. (Its last reported head count was north of 331,000 worldwide, but it was to have eliminated 29,000 by the end of the 2013 fiscal year, which ends later this month.)

One complication is the simple fact that numerous HP offices don’t have sufficient space to accommodate all of their employees. According to sources familiar with the company’s operations, as many as 80,000 employees, and possibly more, were working from home in part because the company didn’t have desks for them all within its own buildings.

Employees who still have a demonstrated need to work from home are being required in some cases to make requests for exceptions. It’s unclear exactly how these decisions are being made, though one factor being considered is said by one source to be commuting distance. Those who live more than one hour’s drive from the nearest HP office may be allowed to continue working from home.

The move to curtail working at home at HP follows a similar policy instituted at Yahoo earlier this year. In a memo issued to Yahoo employees at the time, Yahoo’s head of human resources Jackie Reses argued that “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.”

Strictly speaking, it was easier for Mayer to order all Yahoo employees to work from the office: As of the end of 2012, it had only 11,700 employees, or about four percent of the workforce that HP does. And, in Yahoo’s case, the policy affected only a few hundred employees, such as customer-service reps.

Even so, Yahoo’s policy, first reported by AllThingsD in February, touched off a national conversation about the delicate politics of work-from-home programs at a moment when so many parents with young children are in the workforce. AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher appeared on a segment on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Live” in February to discuss the situation. (Video below.)

The optics of Yahoo’s new policy were made all the more awkward by the birth of Mayer’s first child, and the construction of a nursery near her office at Yahoo HQ (for which she paid out of her own pocket). Mayer later acknowledged that mistakes were made in the way the policy was announced.

Reliable nationwide statistics on the number of people who work at home are hard to come by, although one that is often repeated is that about 10 percent of the American workforce works from home at least one day a week. A 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that about 24 percent of workers did some work at home, either during the workday or catching up on things after-hours.

And, while HP is dialing back work-from-home, it says it is doing so while making an effort to improve its facilities. An HP spokesman sent a list of improvements and changes that have been been made to HP offices in the last year to make working at the office more collaborative. The company has added more than 1,000 conference rooms with new conferencing technology. Gyms and fitness centers and cafeterias have also been improved. Shared spaces have been given a fresh coat of paint, and cleaning schedules have been stepped up. New, modern buildings have been opened up in places like Moffett Towers in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Ojima, Japan, and more are due to open in places like Singapore, Beijing, and Galway, Ireland, the company said.

The move would mark an important shift away from a more flexible work-from-home policy at HP. Asked by AllThingsD last year about its policy in the wake of the Yahoo kerfuffle on the subject, an HP spokesman said at the time:

“We do not ban [work from home] and many HP people do it … it is not at all an issue at HP and hasn’t been for years. Some folks have a regular schedule, while others can do it from time to time with the okay of their supervisors.”

That appear to be changing.

Below is the text of what appears to be a question-and-answer document about the forthcoming policy:

My Workplace, My HP Community. What is the goal of the effort?

As part of the company’s overall turnaround strategy, there is an effort underway to bring employees who currently work from home to work from the office. This effort is part of the company’s cultural shift and will help create a more connected workforce and drive greater collaboration and innovation. In some major sites thereto large amount of underutilized workspace and we want to make the best use of our space. HP will maintain flexible work arrangement options, but with greater clarity and consistency about how to use them.

Why now?

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. Belief in the power of our people is a core principle of the HP Way Now. Employees are at the center of what we do, we achieve competitive advantages through our people. HP has amazing employees who are driving great change. We believe the more employees we have working together, the better for HP and our customers.

How does this support the company strategy end culture?

We want to make HP a great place to work and build a stronger HP Way Now culture of engagement and collaboration. Employees who are more connected tend to be more collaborative, productive, and knowledgeable They will also have a greater sense of the company goals and experience a greater sense of pride in HP. We believe that having employees work from the office will unite and inspire them to achieve higher levels of operational excellence and innovation.

Which employees are affected?

The overall effort is designed to increase collaboration among all employees, including employees who regularly work from home despite having an assigned desk at a site, telework employees who are near HP sites, and those who regularly work in an office now. Employees with part-time or job share arrangements are expected to work from the office. Where legally permissible, contingent workers also are expected to work from the office.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google