Some theories about why IBM is moving 5,000 of its tech people back to the office

Some theories about why IBM is moving 5,000 of its tech people back to the office

IBM pioneered telecommuting. Now it wants people back in the office.

That IBM called back its employees anyway is telling, especially given its history as ‘a business whose business was how other businesses do business.’ Perhaps Big Blue’s decision will prove to be a mere stumble in the long, inevitable march toward remote work for all. But there’s reason to regard the move as a signal, however faint, that telecommuting has reached its high-water markand that more is lost in working apart than was first apparent.

The communications technology offering the fastest, cheapest, and highest-bandwidth connection is still the office.”


This thoughtful article by Jerry Useem in November’s Atlantic offers several rationales for IBM’s about face on remote work, including:

  • Need for “collaborative efficiency” – some studies indicate that groups can solve problems faster when working in proximity.
  • Research by Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at MIT, who found that people working in an office together traded an average of 38 communications about a problem vs. an average of 8 communications if the workers were in different locations.
  • “Radical collocation” – a term coined by Judith Olson, a researcher at UC Irvine. In the late 90s, Ford Motor Company let Olson run an experiment with six teams working on the exact same problem. All six teams worked in war rooms near each other. and all completed their software development projects in about a third of the time normally required for such work.


Our take: These studies by no means prove that remote work is less efficient than co-located work, but they help us understand why some companies might be swayed by reasoning that backs up their hunches.


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