A few weeks ago, I pointed out that IBM is committing cultural and creative suicide by forcing employees to come into the office rather than telecommute from home. In that column, I pointed out that, when Yahoo made the same bonehead move, it didn't do anything to halt that company's slide into irrelevance.
Last October, insurance giant Aetna, which (like IBM) used to tout its liberal telecommuting policy, told a number of employees that they must now schlep to the office every day.
The news this week suggests employees are being asked to go even further. The company is moving its headquarters to New York City, from Hartford, Connecticut.
Why the change? According to a company spokesperson back in October, the reversal of the telecommuting policy was made "with the goal of increasing collaboration and driving innovation."
If that sounds familiar, it's because thousands of pundits and executives seem to think there's a causal connection between collaboration and innovation, when, if anything, they're mutually exclusive.
Don't believe me? Well, let's take a look at Aetna's comparative revenue to see how well its strategy has worked in the short term.
According to SEC filings, Aetna's revenue from premiums for the third quarter of 2016 (the last before the announcement) was $13.5 billion. Aetna's revenue from premiums for the first quarter of 2017 (the first full quarter after the announcement) dropped to $13.2 billion.
That decline is curious because premium revenue is paid on long-term contracts, which tend to be nonvolatile. Also, Aetna's premium revenue has grown year-to-year since 2014. So, why the decline in premium revenue?
I reached out to Aetna and it responded as follows:
Our telework program isn't going away (as is made clear in the Hartford Courant story the Times piece links to) -- the vast majority of Aetna employees with telework arrangements will see no change. There's a small group of managers with larger teams that would benefit from seeing them every day, but the biggest change won't be sending people from their home office to an Aetna office. Instead, we'll be sending people out into the community as part of a shift in how we serve our members.
Even so, I can't help but suspect that the company's cancelation of telecommuting for a number of their key employees could have a negative financial impact. According the market research firm Global Workplace Analytics:
If those with compatible jobs and a desire to work from home did so just half the time (roughly the national average for those who do so regularly) ... a typical business would save $11,000 per person per year [and] the telecommuters would save between $2,000 and $7,000 a year.
It's not hard to imagine that employees would become less productive when you effectively cut their pay by thousands of dollars a year while requiring them to spend extra time and money (like wear-and-tear on automobiles) commuting.
What's sad about this strategy is that according to Gallup, employees who spend 60 to 80 percent of their work hours off-site are more than 30 percent more likely feel "engaged" at work than those who report to the office each day.
In short, it's hard to see what Aetna (or Yahoo or IBM) expects to get from eliminating telecommuting. Employees love the option to work off-site and it makes them more engaged and productive when they can do so.