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IBM shutters remote work: Should you too?

[Written for Replicon blog]

As a formerly staunch proponent of the remote workforce — once boasting that over 40 percent of its employees worked remotely — IBM shocked the business world with its recent decision to dismantle its much-loved (and decades-old) remote work program. Like Yahoo before them (and to a certain extent Bank of America Corp and Aetna Inc. as well), IBM gave its employees a choice: return to one of their traditional regional offices, or leave the company.

While they are certainly not the first business to shutter a previously-lauded remote work program, IBM may be the first one to do so that also actively sells telework software. Indeed, less than a month ago, their Smarter Workforce blog published such titles as “Marking Telework, Work,” which was by no means a departure from their former advocacy of the remote workforce over the years. In effect, they’re selling the Kool-Aid, but maybe not drinking it anymore.

So, if IBM’s “smarter workforce” no longer includes those that telecommute, the big question is: should yours?

First, a little background:

These recent changes coincide with 20 consecutive quarters of decreasing revenue for IBM, in addition to increasing shareholder indignation at the $33 million pay package for IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (a figure which some say is actually underestimated).

According to Jim Reidy, an attorney and chair of the Labor and Employment Law Group in Manchester, NH, “Bringing everyone into the workplace is often a reaction to a decline in profits or the company’s failure to meet organizational goals.” So while there may be a specific strategic reason behind this new shift in policy, it may also be an attempt to shake things up to stimulate revenue growth.

Some remote workforce detriments:

When IBM’s CMO Michelle Peluso announced the first wave of telecommuter relocation, she listed a few reasons as to why a more traditional workforce will help improve productivity:

There is only one recipe I know for success, particularly when we are in as much of a battle with Microsoft and the West Coast companies as we are, 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 their results, put them in really creative inspiring locations and set them free…[there] is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder. Bringing people together creates its own X Factor.

There is, of course, truth to this idea. While telecommuting technology is rapidly improving in quality, it’s hard to argue that it tops good old-fashioned face-to-face communication when it comes to efficiency, productivity, and team-building.

Other drawbacks to remote work include employees feeling a certain sense of isolation, security concerns (home-based systems can be more susceptible to hacking and data leakage), connectivity problems, and employees experiencing difficulty growing and advancing in the company.

And, some benefits:

Still, there are a variety of well-documented advantages that come with enabling a fully remote or semi remote workforce, including:

  • Lower overhead with fewer brick and mortar offices
  • Time and cost saved by eliminating commutes and some business travel
  • Access to a wider variety of talent (that isn’t restricted to regionally-relevant or willing-to-relocate potential hires)
  • Global connectivity across teams
  • Less office distractions
  • Generally happier employees
  • Increased employee engagement/productivity, according to an IBM survey

IBM itself touted many of these benefits, including the alleged $100 million a year they saved in the US by reducing office space by 78 million square feet.

At the end of the day…

Offering flexibility of location — whether it be a few work from home days each week or month, or fully-remote employees — is increasingly becoming a common occurrence, especially for the millennial workforce. Though companies need to decide individually what is best for them, their employees, and their culture, more and more it seems that part of remaining competitive and recruiting valuable resources includes offering flexibility in terms of working remotely.