IBM & Remote Working: It’s All a Bit Confusing!

| By TMA World

On May 4, 2017, an IBM Smarter Workforce Blog reported that the consistent message from an IBM-convened panel at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) conference in April was: “teleworking works, and that the associated challenges can be managed with careful planning and communication.”  It added that work-from-home talent tended to be “more engaged, have stronger trust in leadership and much stronger intention to stay.”

On May 18, 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that IBM was calling its workforce back into offices.  IBM has been a pioneer of remote working, and the announcement has come as a shock to many employees.  About 40 percent of the 380,000-strong workforce were given an ultimatum – they must either relocate to a regional office or leave the company.  

The reasoning for the decision is not quite clear.

The corporate story is that IBM wants to create a more-collaborative environment.  Steve Mnich, IBM’s head of west coast communications says, “In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working . . . We are bringing small, self-directed agile teams together, and we are investing heavily in new facilities, tools and contemporary work spaces for these teams.”

Michelle Peluso, IBM Marketing Head, said: “There is only one recipe I know for success, particularly when we are in such a battle with Microsoft and the West Coast companies . . . and that is by bringing great people with the right skills, give them the right tools, give them a mission, make sure they can analyze the results, put them in really creative inspiring locations and set them free.”

The primary reason appears to be stimulating increased innovation.  Most agree that remote working is more productive, but IBM may have reached a point where increased productivity is no longer enough to succeed.  Something different needs to happen.  John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University argues that what IBM needs to value most are better ideas.  “It turns out,” he says, “the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain.  He points to Apple and Facebook that make around $2 million per employee, whereas IBM makes about $200,000 for each employee.  Working together in person, he believes, is one key to innovation.

Not everyone buys into the reasons given for colocation.  Among some employees, colocation is taken to be another name for downsizing.  IBM has experienced about 20 consecutive quarters of declining sales.  No one can be sure what the consequences of this move will be.  Elizabeth Dukes, chief marketing officer of workplace-management systems company iOffice says that the new IBM policies could negatively impact how current and future employees will view working at IBM: “It’s incredibly bad PR, especially for the millennial and younger generations, for whom work-life balance is a priority in recruiting and retention.”

Every company must determine what workplace strategy will work best for achieving its goals.  Remote working is not going to disappear, although it may become more nuanced, i.e. different types for different jobs, with different people in different circumstances.  Watch this space! 

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