IBM Moves Away from Remote Work

IBM Moves Away from Remote Work

Last month, the Register reported that IBM was recalling much of its sizable remote US workforce to six regional headquarters in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and other major cities:

The consolidation effort, which IBM is pitching as a move to improve productivity, teamwork, and morale, is set to be extended to all IBM operations over the next six months. Remote workers, and staff at smaller offices, will be told to move closer to a regional hub, with IBM offering to cover some costs, or leave the company. Employees are being given roughly 30 days to make their choice.

The computing giant’s decision to scale back its remote workforce is notable as it comes at a time when more and more Americans are working from home (or somewhere other than the office), and working remotely at least part of the time appears to have a positive effect on employee engagement. It’s also a surprising move from a company famous for having pioneered the concept of remote work in the first place, Quartz’s Sarah Kessler points out as part of an in-depth look at why IBM decided to make this change:

As early as the 1980s, the company had installed “remote terminals” in several employees’ homes. And by 2009, when remote work was still, for most, a novelty, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 global employees already worked at home (the company noted that it had reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million in the US annually as a result). IBM’s marketing department had also acquired small startups without relocating their employees to central IBM offices. By early February, when [chief marketing officer Michelle] Peluso made her announcement, it was not uncommon for every member of a small team in her department to dial into conference calls from a different location.

IBM is also not alone among major employers in having second thoughts about maintaining a large remote workforce, Kessler adds:

Yahoo made headlines in 2013 when Marissa Mayer made an abrupt decision to end Yahoo’s remote work policy, and companies like Reddit and Best Buy have, like Yahoo, formally co-located their teams within the last several years. It’s not that remote work didn’t have benefits—Best Buy, for instance, reported in 2006 that productivity had on average increased 35% in departments that shifted to working from wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Rather, it’s that working together, in person, has a different set of benefits. Like Best Buy and Yahoo at the points at which they decided to co-locate, IBM is a business that needs to do something new. Doing what it has always done, but better, won’t cut it.

Also writing at Quartz, Dan Schwabel questions the premise that remote work tends to isolate employees from their teammates, arguing that distributed teams are actually more motivated to communicate with colleagues to make up for their lack of physical proximity:

There has always been a stigma attached to telecommuting. It’s typically related to the many potential distractions that could come with working from home. In a new global study of over 25,000 employees, in partnership with Polycom, my firm found that 62% of remote workers fear that other employees don’t think they are working as hard as them. …

Despite the stigma that still exists in our society, [collaborative technology] tools are actually motivating workers to pick up the phone, seek face time and create lasting bonds. The study found that 98% of employees say that collaborative technologies make it easier to build relationships with co-workers. Nearly half of them pick up the phone more regularly after using the technology remotely. In other words, we feel like we have to be even more connected with our teams precisely because we aren’t in the same office as them.