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 mark—and 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.
“Everyone I know is very upset,” says one employee, who like most interviewed asked to remain anonymous while discussing an employer. Some workers furiously began looking for new jobs. Others say they have stopped contributing to long-term projects because they aren’t sure whether they’ll be around in the future. "
They can say "goodbye" to the best and brightest talent. Iike Yahoo and Best Buy, IBM is in deep trouble. Somehow that seems to create a "circle the wagons" reaction.
But the connection between co-location and collaboration or innovation has NOT been proven. Many of the studies often cited in these arguments date back to the early 1990s when working at a distance was much more difficult.
What has been proven is that: 1) open offices are distracting and counterproductive. They are a particular nightmare for introverts who make up over 40% of employees; and 2) workplace flexibility is key to attracting and retaining talent.
"It seems these decisions (recalling telecommuters) are all about optics, though; make it look like the office is full and bustling. To these CEOs, it's freaky to have remote workers who cannot join endless, spur-of-the-moment meetings."
Sharon Wall (GSA Regional Administrator) has a line I love, "Telework doesn't create management problems, it reveals them."
In this global, mobile society, whether people are 9 floors, 9 miles, or 9 time zones away, they are connecting remotely. The days of managing by walking around are gone forever because, like Elvis, the people have already left the building.
Let's stop calling it telework or telecommuting and deal with the reality that people are working anywhere, everywhere, and at all times. Resisting it is useless. The genie is not going back in the bottle. What employers should be doing (the good ones already are) is putting the policies, practices, and training in place to optimize the results for people, planet, and profits.