Remote Worker Redundancy

In response to a blog post about IBM’s ‘remote worker culture’ (IBM – The New Workplace – It’s all about the culture) one person commented: “I can tell you that remote workers are getting steadily laid off, forced to relocate to central “delivery centers” at their own cost, and fired if they refuse to do so on 30-day’s notice.

What followed was an interesting discussion about IBMs working practices and how management had used “remote vs. office-based mandate to effectively eliminate jobs“. A disgruntled ex-manager claims that:

IBM are working toward a delivery model that is a majority of lower paid workers (and a much larger percentage of contractors who routinely receive salary cuts – like clockwork each year), who receive direction from a smaller and smaller number of senior technical staff. Many of the senior tech folks have been remote for years. If someone refuses the mandate to relocate to a physical delivery center, they have effectively resigned and do not need to be given a fully-funded severance package (in the US – employment is “at-will”).

Naturally those working for IBM were quick to quash these claims but it does raise some interesting questions about remote workers status when cuts are made. A quick trawl of the Web shows that there are organisations that are insisting their remote workers move to on-site working or be made redundant. Apparently an employer is entitled to whatever changes they like to terms and conditions for “business reasons”.

I initially wrote about this back in October 2008 (The Credit Crunch and Remote Working). Since then we’ve been through some tricky times but there still seem to be positive drivers for remote and flexible working – even the new government agree.Those of my readers who work, like me, in the UK public sector will know that significant cuts are already being made. Redundancies are invevitable. Does being a remote worker put you in a more fragile position?

Yes

On the one hand there is the old remote worker perception issue. Remote workers may be possibly less involved culturally and less ‘seen’ and there may be a tendancy to perceive them as less effective and so first for the chop. It’s always easier to get rid of someone where there is distance between you!

No

However on the other hand many remote workers have proved themsleves to be highly effective and moving staff off-site often offers savings. At my BUCS talk a few weeks back there was much discussion of how remote working could save the University a lot of money. This is a practice already being carried out by many Local Authorities. where the business case for flexible and remote working is clear.

A working families briefing paper on Flexible working in a challenging economic climate sees flexible working as a positive thing during a recession. Options such as reduced hours, off-site working, pay cuts and reducing expenses costs are offered as alternatives to redundancy.

Instinctive reactions to challenging economic times such as reversion to ‘default’ employment models of the past (full-time, inflexible) should be examined closely. Will such a move be strategically beneficial? Retrenching from a position where flexible working is acceptable and encouraged may damage workplace cultures, and revoking flexible working arrangements may have consequences which outweigh any putative gains anticipated by such a move. What will be the effect on morale, on loyalty and commitment, on the trust between employers and employees? Will such a move damage an employers reputation, and where will this position the business when the upturn comes and new recruits are needed? Is it really the time to abandon flexible ‘smart’ working practices in favour of more fixed ones at a time when a flexible workforce might be a useful tool to navigate choppy waters.

Remote working may also be a ‘useful tool’ to help get many back to work. People may find themselves out of worl and see contracting and home working as an option. It’s quite possible that someone set up to work from home can get started a lot quicker than someone who has to relocate or change their lifestyle considerably.

The difficult times are still far from over and there are many more employers who will be forced to make staff members redundant, but hopefully not because of where they do their work. Lets hope that we don’t move back to our inflexible ways of working. The working families briefing paper stresses our need to emphasie the benefits of remote working:

It might not be enough to pitch flexible working at the general level – linking flexible working to specific areas of concern is much more likely to see it seriously considered. Two interrelated areas are important. Where flexible working is already in place, how can its ‘value’ be captured and demonstrated? And what creative solutions can be used to deploy more flexible working to help organisations cope?

As they say “difficult times call for bold thinking: now, more than ever, flexible working is a vital tool for business survival and longer term success.