IBM Tells Remote Workers to Get Back to the Office.

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Moving Forward or Backward?  IBM Tells Employees to Get Back to Work (In the Office, That Is)

Even as reports show engagement and productivity are enhanced with remote work, IBM took a big step in May, telling remote employees in several of its divisions that it is time to come back in the office.

IBM is known as a pioneer in the work from home (WFM) movement that saw companies offer remote work as a perk to make the best hires, reduce costs, and improve productivity.  Describing its own research on remote workers just weeks before the announcement, IBM wrote in its a blog, “The remote workers in this research were highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues.” 

Move or quit

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that IBM gave affected remote workers 30 days to decide whether they wanted to return to the office.  Remote workers who do not live near an IBM office were instructed to relocate to different city or they could take 90 days to apply for a different job at IBM. Otherwise, they can quit.

Described in Quartz, as “co-location,” the move has had a numbing effect on employees, some of whom have anonymously commented in the media that the move is actually an effort to cut costs and downsize.  A similar move by Yahoo in 2013 did not staunch the economic downturn of that company.  According to reports, Yahoo no longer bans all remote work.

In the Mercury News, Steve Mnich, IBM head of west coast communications, notes the decision was made to reflect changes in the company, “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.”  The same outlet also reports IBM has reported 20 consecutive quarters of declining revenue, giving restless investors like Warren Buffet reason to cut loose some of their shares in IBM.

Cutting costs or employees? 

While Mr. Mnich notes that eliminating remote work aligns with the direction of the business at present, it is not clear what that direction is.   Reports consistently rank remote work as a top perk among Millennials and other workers seeking flexible working arrangement for work/life balance and other reasons.

As we discussed earlier, the recent State of the American Workplace report from Gallup found 37 percent of workers would switch employment for a job that allows them to work remotely at least part of the time.  Gallup also found that 43 of workers performed at least part of their work remotely in the last year in the US. Innovation and productivity do not suffer when remote work is structured to include strong communications channels with co-workers and managers.  Overall, the report finds more people are working remotely—and for longer periods of time—a strategy that works better in some industries than others.

In the media, Elizabeth Dukes, CMO of iOffice commented on the policy change by 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. They will have to compensate in other ways (like) career path, advancement opportunity, engaging workplace, community contribution and environmental support in order to become an employer of choice moving forward.”

From a recruiting standpoint, it is difficult not to see the move by IBM as a gaffe that may have long-reaching consequences for the company.  The company has promoted remote workers, especially in its own industry. Yet the value of that option is apparently not attractive to a company in the position currently occupied by IBM.

The move by IBM will not turn back the tide of increasing numbers of US employees requesting, and taking, remote work opportunities.  The decision does offer perspective and prompt questions about the future of an innovative company that has come full cycle on the work and HR practices it once championed.

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