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Why Are Big Companies Calling Their Remote Workers Back to the Office?

With companies such as Bank of America and IBM reducing or eliminating their telecommuting programs, what's behind the axing of a perk that works?
Image: A woman works from home
A woman works from homeOnest Mistic / Getty Images

With companies such as Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna — and, most recently, IBM — reducing or completely eliminating their telecommuting programs, what's behind the removal of a perk that many managers admit enables workers to increase their productivity?

New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey shows that the number of U.S. workers who worked partially or fully from home dropped to 22 percent in 2016 — down two percentage points from 2015.

Evidence of a decline in working remotely may come as a surprise, especially if you consider reports that contradict this finding, like Gallup’s recent “State of the American Workplace,” which found that 43 percent of employees reported working remotely in 2016, up from 39 percent in 2012; or FlexJob’s State of Telecommuting in 2017 report, which noted that nine million people (2.9 percent of the total U.S. labor force), work from home at least half of the time — up from 1.8 million in 2005.

Then of course you’ve got piles of data on just how much millennials appreciate flexibility in work schedule, often favoring it over higher salary; and the fact that a lot of companies are meeting their demands: The 2017 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that the percentage of millennials with “flexible locations” is at 64 percent — up 21 percent from 2016.

So, what gives? Why does culture appear to be shifting in the direction of more telecommuting, when the BLS, the kingpin of U.S. employment data, indicates that employers are pulling back on the reins?

This Data Is Just a Tad Misleading

An important consideration in figuring this all out: the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) is a bit problematic.

“The ATUS, while an interesting look at how we spend our time each day, isn’t necessarily an accurate picture of telecommuting overall,” Brie Reynolds, senior career specialist at FlexJobs, told NBC News.

“Essentially, the ATUS isn't a great indicator of true telecommuting trends because it captures a lot of the ad-hoc telecommuting, [such as] the many people who are bringing work home with them to finish at night and on the weekends, [or] the people who work from home freelancing or starting a business in addition to their full-time in-office jobs," Reynolds said.

Recent research from Global Workplace Analytics, tying in data from the American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau) noted that the cohort of non-self-employed people who telecommute has grown by 115 percent since 2005.

Trouble in Work Perk Paradise

Even if we conclude that yes, telecommuting is on the rise, it doesn’t take away from the fact that corporate America is cutting back on its work-from-home programs.

Most likely, no employees leapt for joy when they heard the news that they had to get back into the office. So, why take a perk away unless it’s proving to be a problem?

Possibly because you’ve got bigger concerns behind the scenes.

“I think these companies are really struggling to compete at an innovation level with smaller-stage organizations,” said Thanh Nguyen, managing director of HR consulting firm Connery Consulting. “They’re thinking of every single possible way to reunite people to drive better innovations.”

Getting people physically back in the office may be a “calculated risk” (as Nguyen puts it), taken in an attempt to keep up with the younger startups that don’t have to move around so much corporate red tape in order to release a product or redesign. What’s more, Nguyen points out “while [remote working] solutions like Slack and Asana make telecommuting much easier, it's difficult when you have a sub team of 1,000.”

Yes, it’s tricky to get everybody on the same page when they’re literally all over the place. The irony? The fresh, young startups these legacy companies are struggling to compete with prize telecommuting to such an extent that they usually don’t even have telecommuting policies — "It’s just a given,” said Nguyen.

Telecommuting Isn’t Right for Everybody

Though it’s the big companies that attract the spotlight, there are some small companies that have felt a need to cancel their telecommuting policies, too.

“Our experiment in letting people work from home on Fridays backfired,” said Richard Laermer, the CEO of RLM Public Relations, a NYC-based firm that has 11 employees. “The things people did on their ‘free’ time astounded me.”

Related: Is Working From Home Making You Miserable?

Laermer points to the immaturity of certain staff members, and their lack of desire/ability to focus on work while out of the office as the reasons why he eliminated telecommuting (and fired a few employees). Other companies may be revoking their telecommuting policies because they rolled them out too quickly, without really planning them out.

“As with any monumental shift in employment practices, initially you have companies jump on board and an interesting idea becomes a fad of sorts and subsequently people start poking holes in it and the trend begins to dip,” Chere Taylor, founder of Fulcrum HR Consulting, told NBC News.

The Millennial Standard Stands

Ultimately it’s in the best interest of companies to at least try and get telecommuting right — because millennials won’t have a problem moving to a company that does.

“Millennials are likely to move jobs up to 15 times in their career, [figuring,] ‘If this company does not provide the benefits of options I’m looking for, I can look elsewhere,’” said Claire McTaggart, founder of SquarePeg, a job matching service for employers and job seekers. “It helps that this current job market favors talent, and so millennials (who now make up the largest portion of the workforce) will likely have their pick amongst companies competing for them.”

And it’s not just that millennials are choosy, it’s that they’re starting to settle down and have families. Having some flexibility in your work life can be essential.

Related: How Millennials Are Changing the Workplace for the Better

“I wouldn't accept a job if telecommuting occasionally weren't an option,” said Meredith Bodgas, a 34-year-old mom and the editor-in-chief of Working Mother.

You’ll probably hear this sentiment echoed more and more over the next five years not only by millennial employees, but also by millennial CEOs.

“One of the best things about telecommuting as a CEO is that it gives you access to people you normally wouldn’t be able to reach,” said Allen Walton, the founder of SpyGuy Security, who advocates telecommuting for his employees — including his 60-something mom, who works while caring for her granddaughter.

Telecommuting may be a core millennial value, but it’s something just about every worker can appreciate.