Why some big employers in Charlotte are cutting back on work-from-home jobs

Why some big employers in Charlotte are cutting back on work-from-home jobs

CHARLOTTE, NC (Matt Kaminer and Deon Roberts | The Charlotte Observer) - At a time when technology allows people to work from virtually anywhere, more companies are cutting back on work-from-home programs, including in Charlotte.

Wells Fargo said this week it's considering removing a remote-work option from an undisclosed number of Charlotte-area employees when it moves into a new Ballantyne building this summer. Earlier this month, tech giant IBM, which has operations in Charlotte, told some remote employees in the U.S. they'd no longer be allowed to work at home.

The shifts follow similar pullbacks in recent years by other big companies. In 2014, for example, Charlotte-based Bank of America told some employees working for the bank's global technology and operations division in its headquarters city that they had to begin reporting to an office. Around the country, Best BuyYahoo and Reddit are among other companies that have announced the dismantling or scaling back of such programs.

What's behind the moves to rein in remote work? Often it's about encouraging more collaboration, human resources experts say.

"A lot of companies are coming to realize that to some degree, you lose the camaraderie and cohesiveness with work-at-home jobs," said Kenny Colbert, president of Charlotte-based human resources consulting firm The Employers Association.

"So they aren't necessarily getting rid of them entirely, but they are limiting the number of people who can do it," he said.

Critics say requiring employees to sit in an office is outdated, considering the many technologies that allow work to be performed off-site. Critics also say stripping away the perk disrupts families' lives, creates additional financial burdens for employees – think daycare – and puts more vehicles on already-crowded roadways.

IBM: 'Teams need to be together'

For Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM, the decision reflects the company's need to have employees work close together to more quickly respond to client feedback, according to company spokeswoman Laurie Friedman.

"Teams need to be together, constantly analyzing their work and making improvements based on real-time market feedback and results," Friedman said in an email to the Observer.

IBM, which employs about 2,500 locally, according to the Charlotte Chamber, had been one of the earliest cheerleaders of work-from-home programs. Of the company's 386,000 worldwide employees, 40 percent worked either from home or at a client site in 2009, according to a report IBM published that year.

San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which has its largest employment base in Charlotte, has let some people work remotely as the bank has dealt with office-space shortages in the region, spokesman Josh Dunn said. Wells Fargo has continued to expand its local employment, which stands at about 24,000, since acquiring Charlotte-based Wachovia in 2008.

Some Wells Fargo employees working remotely could be asked to report to a new Ballantyne Corporate Park building once employees begin moving in starting in July, Dunn said. The building, which will house about 1,600 Wells Fargo employees, "will allow them to all be under the same roof," Dunn said, noting that Wells will continue to allow other employees to work from home.

At Bank of America, employees have been allowed to use the company's telecommuting program, My Work, based on a range of considerations, such as the employee's role and the consent of their manager, spokesman Andy Aldridge said. He did not immediately have a number for how many employees are currently telecommuting. The company employs about 15,000 in Charlotte.

"My Work is still an option for our employees," Aldridge said. "Bank of America as a whole has not said we're doing away with My Work."

The position, not the department

For telecommuters who worry that their entire department could be asked to relocate to an office, a survey conducted last year by The Employer's Association suggests that Charlotte companies see other factors as more important.

The survey, which received responses from 193 Charlotte-area companies, showed 82 determine remote jobs based on the position, 81 on a person-by-person basis and 47 on the department.

"This shows that companies look at the position that's eligible to work, and the individual within those positions, rather than department-wide," Colbert said.

In January, FlexJobs, a Colorado company that vets telecommuting job listings, named IBM and Wells Fargo two of the top 100 companies offering telecommuting opportunities in 2017.

Brie Reynolds, FlexJobs senior career specialist, called the IBM decision "especially disheartening," noting "IBM has been such a leader in the telecommuting sphere, having supported this type of work for decades."

While larger companies around the U.S. appear to be bringing workers back into the office, nationwide the market for remote jobs appears to be growing. FlexJobs found that remote jobs have increased by 52 percent over the past year.

According to its 2009 report, IBM found it reaped immediate benefits during its transition to work-from-home jobs. From 1995 to 2009, the company reduced its office space by 78 million square feet, saving about $3 billion annually.

"Work is no longer about where you are, but what you do," the report reads.

Competing for talent

Melissa McGuire, managing director for Charlotte-based staffing firm Sherpa, said companies face a balancing act: On the one hand, offering remote-work programs can help them compete for talent. On the other hand, they have to ensure such arrangements don't hurt the firm's performance.

"Employees want to work from home," she said. "Commutes are bad. But then if you're not achieving corporate goals, it's a pendulum swing to balance the employee desire to avoid a commute versus the accretive part of working together – that special sauce when you work together at the office."

But cutting back on work-from-home programs could also hurt a company's reputation among potential employees, McGuire said.

"Talent is so hard to find right now that changes in work-from-home programs can really affect a company's ability to hire and retain employees," she said. "It's the kind of thing that employees watch."