Big Surprise for IBM: Yes, There IS a Downside to a Remote Workforce

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I’M SURPRISED this didn’t happen sooner, but IBM, an early and vocal champion of a remote workforce, finally discovered what any remote worker could have told you years ago.

The problem with remote work is that you work remotely.

I know, I know — that sounds like double-talk. But as someone who worked in a typical office environment for most of my career before spending the last seven years toiling remotely, I know what I’m talking about here.

It’s this: For all the upsides of remote work — and yes, there are a lot of them —  the one big downside is that you lose the collaborative aspects of working around other people.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal broke the news that IBM, a company that “boasted that more than 40 percent of (their) employees worked outside traditional company offices,” had abruptly changed direction and was “dismantling its popular decades-old remote work program to bring employees back into offices, a move it says will improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work.”

Why IBM’s decision is so surprising

The startling thing here is that IBM has been the poster child for the wonders of remote work. If a giant organization like IBM can make it work, the argument went, why can’t everybody else?

It’s a great question, but it misses the fact that not every job can be done remotely. Certain jobs — like mine as a writer and editor — can be performed from just about anywhere, but there are a lot of others that require the employee to be there in person and interacting with customers and other employees.

Nobody disputes this, but a lot of workers gripe that a great many more jobs could be done remotely if more employers and their managers were willing to expand their thinking and consider it.

That’s what makes IBM’s decision to end remote work so surprising, because as the WSJ notes, “the Armonk, N.Y. company has been among the business world’s staunchest boosters of remote work, both for itself and its customers. IBM markets software and services for what it calls ‘the anytime, anywhere workforce,’ and its researchers have published numerous studies on the merits of remote work.”

In addition to that, IBM has put its money where its mouth is. As the WSJ points out, “IBM has boasted that more than 40 percent of employees worked outside traditional company offices, and a May 4 post on the company’s Smarter Workforce blog stated that ‘telework works.’”

So, why would such a staunch booster of remote work suddenly reverse course?

Yes, there is a downside to remote work

That’s easy; it’s because the big downside to remote work is that you miss out on working in close proximity to your co-workers.

I know, I know — staunch defenders of remote work would tell you that technology has made it incredibly easy to connect with your co-workers in all sorts of ways no matter where you are, and they are absolutely right about that.

But what gets lost when you work remotely are all the little interactions you have in an office environment that are unplanned, and that spur-of-the-moment creative thinking and innovation.

  • It’s when somebody walking by hears a conversation you’re having with someone else and it spurs them to stop, jump in, and add something unexpected.
  • It’s when somebody sees that you’re in your office, or your cube, and they come in and tell you something that has been on their mind that is both meaningful and actionable.
  • It’s when you’re having a meeting and discover that someone who really should be there isn’t, so you pull them in and the entire group benefits from their contribution.

I could go on, but you get the point. Remote work is good for a great many jobs, but not for all. And more importantly, with remote workers you lose the benefits of the spur-of-the-moment collaborations that happen all day, every day in an office environment.

This is what I missed the most when working remotely, and this is what other remote workers say that they miss too. And, I hear a lot fewer stories or great jokes when I’m toiling in my home office. I’m losing out on all of that as well.

Is this really just a way to cut costs?

Many believe that IBM’s decision is really just a cover for cutting costs, although the company told the WSJ that this wasn’t the case. Still, IBM workers who haven’t had to worry about getting into the office now face the challenges of doing that — and some are saying that they won’t be able to and will be forced to find a new job. According to the WSJ,

“IBM may be part of a broader rethink of remote work under way at large companies, as corporate leaders argue that putting workers in the same physical space hastens the speed of work and sparks innovation. …


Big Blue’s leaders want employees to work differently now, said Laurie Friedman, a company spokeswoman. The company has rebuilt design and digital marketing teams to quickly respond to real-time data and customer feedback, collaborations that happen more easily when teams work shoulder to shoulder, Ms. Friedman said, adding that the “vast majority” of IBM’s telecommuters have chosen to join their teams in person.”

My take? Yes, there may be some cost-cutting going on here, but there’s something else going on as well and that’s why we shouldn’t be too hard on IBM for recalling their remote workers.

It may be that IBM executives truly believe that the organization has lost more than it gained by not having everyone in the office, and although I know that many will scoff at that, a great many managers will tell you that collaboration and cultural growth DOES happen more easily when teams are “shoulder to shoulder.”

A big move — and a big gamble

Big companies frequently decide they need to make big moves to get people’s attention. That sells well on Wall Street, and as a blue chip company that listens closely to the market, IBM may need to make a big move to get investors and analysts focused on them again.

I know, I know — bringing back the remote workers didn’t work for Yahoo. How do we know it will work for IBM? How do we know if the downside to dislocating so much of their workforce won’t outweigh the benefits of collaboration?

We don’t, you don’t, and they don’t, but you also don’t get as big and powerful as IBM has by treading lightly.

Big, successful companies make big (and sometimes controversial) moves. Yes, Big Blue is making a big bet and throwing the dice here, gambling the killing of something they have long touted will be beneficial to their future growth.

I’m a gambler by nature and I applaud big bets. Here’s hoping that on this one, they don’t crap out.

This was originally published on the Fistful of Talent blog. 

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