Why I’m So Sad about IBM’s recent “Back to the Office” Ultimatum

Back in February, I managed to miss the news that IBM was making more of its employees sit “shoulder to shoulder” with their colleagues. The corporation is limiting where employees work for the US Marketing Department to six of its offices. No more working from home; no more working in any of the other offices.

After reading the long-form article in Quartz, ‘IBM, remote-work pioneer, is calling thousands of employees back to the office’,  I’ve found myself pondering about what widely-reported news like this mean for the future of work and our attitudes towards our work.


Before I go into the reasons why reflecting on this article is worrying me, let me share three things about myself to put this personal blog post into context.

(1) I’m actually quite fond of IBM. My father worked in its Madrid Scientific Centre for a while and then became a manager and employee for the company for around 20 years during the 70s and 80s.  Furthermore, IBM has been at the front of “mobile working”, raising many of the concerns and highlighting opportunities we’re now all too familiar with as early as 2005, highlighting on their website that 40% of their workforce is remote, with some of their employees sharing remote facilitation techniques through webinars this week.

(2) I’m not an advocate of remote working per se, but as a means of giving us more individual choice in how we lead our professional lives. Technology is giving us more choice about how we live our lives and it’s allowing (some of) us to balance our work with our other aspirations by not forcing us to live in locations that are close to our workplace. Remote work also has the potential to reduce much of the unnecessary stress in cities, where uncomfortable commutes result in unhappy starts and exhausting ends to the working day.

(For the argument of why this choice is even more important in the current political climate, see this blog post by Virtual Team Talk member Fabiano Morais.)

(3) I don’t do all my work with others through technology: there are instances in which I much prefer to be with someone in the same physical space. And then there are times when technology saves me so much travel time and hassle that I’d much rather communicate through my computer. (Not to mention the fact that it allows me to work and collaborate with people living in other cities or countries, like Mark Kilby, and Isaac Garcia from Virtual Team Talk, who very kindly helped me with this article.)

So, given these points, why am I so sad and disappointed that IBM’s chief marketing officer Michelle Peluso has announced that the US marketing department, made up of around 2,600 people can now only work “shoulder to shoulder” in six of IBM’s offices? (And this is not an isolated case as over the last years IBM has also been pulling back into the office people working in other areas of the business.)  

Well, let’s go back to (1) – (3).  



1) An Unfortunate Role-Model
 

IBM is not the first organisation to make people go back to the office and they won’t be the last. They can do what they want and no-one can accuse them of not trying to offer a flexible set-up, but they’re just giving lazier companies a great example to point to. Just last week I came across someone in a workshop who was desperate to find out how to lead a remote team, as all her attempts in her organisation had failed. I have to admit that given her context, I wasn’t able to help her.

She’d had an issue with someone who was basically shamelessly under-performing, taking advantage of the fact that they were located away from their manager (please, please don’t do that, you’re spoiling it for everyone!). The HR procedures in the company hadn’t been adapted to remote work and so this manager was having a terrible time holding that person accountable. Add to that the widespread security issues that prevented her team members from using technology to hold each other accountable and you have the ideal scenario for remote work to fail: a non-adaptive organisation and restrictions on technology.

For virtual teamwork to have the remotest chance of success (sorry, I had to slip that one in), organisations and people need to understand what it entails. And for some organisations, for some kind of teams and for some individuals working from home or in isolation from colleagues, it might just never work. 


2) Increasing Inequality
 

Members of the US Marketing Department will need to work from one of six locations. This means that some of the employees will have to move their homebase or commute over long periods of time or leave their jobs all together. I think this is what gets me the most. We’re at a point when we’re beginning to shift our attitudes to the relationship with work but mandates like these just take us back decades.

By thinking about work in flexible terms, those of us who love our work can integrate it into our lives without letting it lead our lives. 

I know that in saying this I’m part of a “lucky few”, but shifts like the one IBM has made make that “lucky few” even smaller. People work from home or from different locations for a variety of reasons. Some enjoy the work ethic of a location while preferring the social surroundings of another. Some need to work from home in order to look after an ill relative or enjoy the best years of their children’s lives.

Others might have real difficulty with standing in a crowded tube for 45 mins each way, only to get on an overcrowded train to take them to their affordable home. Remote work has the potential of levelling the playing field, of allowing people of limited means to enjoy working for Headquarters located in expensive areas. Reducing these options only adds to the divisiveness that’s growing in Western society.

3) Does Collocation equal Innovation?
 

I’m still not convinced that the answer to nurturing innovative thinking in teams is to make everyone sit shoulder to shoulder with others every day. We still need more data on this, but surely there must be ways of balancing “location-dependent” thinking with “location independent” collaboration?

The Quartz article cites some research on the fact that better collaboration can be achieved when collocated. This research was published in Harvard Magazine in 2011 and relates to 1999 – 2003 The ability to have great conversations online has really increased since then! Another piece of research cited goes back to 1988. IBM hasn’t shared the specific data that has led them to make the decision around whether collocated or remote or a blend of the two leads to better results. (To read about how an IBM worker experienced remote working in 1998, check out the last section of this article.)

Finally, the article mentions Facebook, Google and other companies that don’t accommodate for remote workers. That doesn’t worry me. They have a strong culture that relies on collocation for employee engagement and it works for them – why should they try something that goes against it?

These organisations cited as successful examples of companies with no remote workers are the top tech giants. They have great facilities. They have amazing buildings. They offer different types of locations to suit the different type of work and personalities they encompass.

Once more, my fear is that less wealthy organisations will look up to these companies and model their own decisions on them. Not all companies can afford such fantastic surroundings. Not all businesses provide the professional development and status that make it worth travelling into work every day or relocating your home. 

Coda

So that’s why I’m sad after reading the Quartz article. I’m sad and a little bit pessimistic that while there are still many opportunities to be explored in the “virtual teamwork” space, we’re already seeing high-profile examples that advocate for collocation as the only way of solving low collaboration or innovation.

It could of course be that championing collaboration and innovation are not the main drivers behind this decision I am very aware that I’m missing a lot of information about how this decision was taken and why. But it’s the argument that strict, collocated teamwork will trump carefully crafted remote work that I’m not convinced by. We haven’t been in this new, tech-enabled collaborative world for long. Only time will tell.   

For a range of different points of view on this story, including that of people working at IBM, check out the comments on the Washington Post's article with the outrageous headline "IBM is ordering its work-from-home employees to stop working from home".