Earlier this year IBM told remote employees they must return to the office or leave the company.
It’s a turnaround. IBM pioneered allowing employees to work from home. At times as many as more than a third of the firm’s staff worked at places away from company offices.
The company often lectures others on the merits of remote work. Company marketing describes telework as the future. Moreover, IBM sells products enabling its customers to offer remote work to their employees.
IBM’s remote work policy was popular with staff. Many talented people either opted to join the company or decided to stay put because they could work from home. It’s powerful for working women with families and just as good for dads who like to see their children more often.
Productivity or IBM’s staff costs?
The official reason for the change is that working together in one place helps productivity, teamwork and morale.
There’s something in this. Collaboration is easier when co-workers sit across the aisle. Video conference calls are productive, but so are well organised face-to-face sessions. Chance meetings at the coffee station can spark fresh thinking.
Yet, you can’t help wonder if IBM’s move is about cutting staff numbers. Many remote workers may decide it is too hard to move home in order to keep their job. Some of the office demands mean people have to move long distances to keep their jobs.
There’s research, some sponsored by IBM, showing teleworkers are more productive than office-bound workers. Which argument are we supposed to believe? Can we trust anything the company says on the subject?
Yahoo made a similar back-to-the-office move. It was unpopular. Many talented staff members quit. We all know how well that story ended.
There’s a practical problem for IBM workers in places like New Zealand. Some specialist roles are shared with Australia. There are ANZ managers are in New Zealand, others across the Tasman. They shuttle between locations and make a lot of conference calls. What happens to them under the new rules? The fear is they will be under pressure to move closer to the regional HQ in Sydney. That will not go down well with New Zealand customers.
Remote working became popular with large companies about a decade ago as suburban broadband improved. Video conferencing went from being difficult to practical.
Senior managers across the technology and other industries loved the idea of remote work as they thought it would save costs. In theory, offices needed less real estate and fewer support services when workers were elsewhere.
Things didn’t work out that way. Few savings materialised.The other part of this equation is that management went through a stage of being output-focused. That is, they were more concerned with what employees produced than in keeping close tabs on them all day long. If someone produced a report in their pyjamas or by sitting next to the pool that wasn’t a problem so long as the work was good. It seems the pendulum has swung back to command and control.