IBM is scrapping its pioneering, decades-old remote work program, telling offsite employees to head back to the office full-time or find another employer. The reason? To improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work, the company said in a formal statement. “In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working,” it added.
Plenty of analysts and commentators aren’t buying into that explanation, at least not fully. Many say Big Blue is eliminating remote work to downsize and cut costs, noting the announcement follows 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenues.
It’s hard to know what the real story is. Most likely there’s some truth in what both IBM and the pundits are saying, so the question becomes …
Sheer Genius or Utter Folly?
It’s far too early to determine whether IBM’s policy pivot is a stroke of genius or a huge mistake. Articles in both Bloomberg and Fast Company, however, have been highly critical of the decision. And a Forbes piece titled, “Why IBM’s Move To Rein In Remote Workers Isn’t The Answer,” implies the move smacks of desperation. “The fact is, this strategy is another shot in the dark. It’s a hope for something new but it’s not a plan,” author Jeff Boss writes.
IBM’s remote work program has delivered billions of dollars in cost savings and improved productivity—results the company has proudly touted over the years. Equally important, it’s going to take money, time and effort to bring tens of thousands of remote workers back into the workplace. This figure could end up being closer to hundreds of thousands; as CNN Money reported, about 40% of IBM workers (who now number almost 400,000) didn’t have a “traditional office” the last time the company reported on such data.
Given these facts—and the reality that remote work has become a mainstream practice among employers of every stripe and size—it’s difficult to imagine IBM’s talent brand won’t be tarnished by its reversal on remote work, not to mention employee morale and long-term loyalty. Think of all those employees staying on at IBM (temporarily or otherwise) yet becoming seriously disengaged.
A Business- and Life-Altering Decision
In fact, reports of employee unrest and disengagement began almost immediately after IBM broke the news.
“Everyone I know is very upset,” said one employee, who was interviewed for a Quartz article, which went on to state: “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.”
While these reactions are precisely the opposite of what IBM hopes to accomplish, they’re hardly unexpected, particularly from men and women who prized the ability to work from home as a major advantage of employment at IBM. Their employer had given them the autonomy to work when and where they chose; it had liberated them to care for children and elderly relatives with greater ease; and it had freed them from long, difficult or costly commutes.
For many IBM workers, these freedoms have been revoked. It doesn’t just change their work. It changes their lives.
Does Where We Work Trump How?
In his Forbes piece, Boss makes it clear that IBM could be hamstringing itself by slashing remote work. “It’s not about where people work,” he writes. “Where people work isn’t as important as how or why they work. Remember from Daniel Pink’s research on Motivation 2.0 that autonomy is one of three main drivers for people, along with purpose and mastery. If employees don’t feel their autonomous needs are being met, then off to another job they go.”
A growing body of research supports Boss’s case. As I noted in an April post, Gallup reports an “optimal engagement boost” occurs when individuals work remotely 60% to 80% of the time. And other studies have shown that the advantages of remote work include lower operating costs, increased retention and productivity, and greater employee well being.
To be fair, Gallup’s data also show that employees who work remotely all of the time—at least for particular types of work and job functions—may miss out on some meaningful conversations and connections with colleagues, which can negatively impact their productivity. This seems to be the argument IBM is making, in part at least, to justify repealing remote work.
Pioneers don’t always move straight ahead. Sometimes they have to backtrack and change direction to make progress. IBM claims to be doing exactly that—doubling back on its pioneering remote work program in order to move forward. It’s a bold move. Only time will tell if it’s a wise one.