Once a telework pioneer, IBM pulls employees back to the office

IBM wants workers back in the office as it bets that proximity will lead to more innovation and collaboration at Big Blue.

Something is brewing over at IBM that goes against the grain of what we typically expect of leading technology companies – they want their people to come to the office.

Official word from the company is that its marketing organizations are being asked to work in one of six U.S. locations – New York, Raleigh, N.C., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Atlanta. My understanding is that the federal marketing team will stay in the D.C. area.

Those who don’t move and return to the office will need to find other jobs, either at IBM or elsewhere.

The company has created “state of the art spaces” to promote agile collaboration. The idea is to rapidly iterate programs in real-time, based on performance.

But this move to bring remote workers back to the office isn’t just about the marketing team but is part of a broader trend across IBM, according to an article on Quartz, an online global business news site.

IBM was a trailblazer in the 1980s when they installed terminals in workers’ homes. According to Quartz, by 2009, 40 percent of IBM’s global employees worked at home. They claimed to have shaved office space by 78 million square feet and saved about $100 million annually.

What IBM is doing bucks the trend but they aren’t alone as the Quartz article points out – Apple, Google and others encourage workers to come to the office. They relay the somewhat legendary story of how Steve Jobs wanted to put all the bathrooms at the same end of a building because it would force people to walk and would precipitate spontaneous meetings. The so-called water-cooler effect.

 Other parts of IBM have already gone through this shift or are well on their way, including the teams working on Watson, Watson Health, Watson Internet of Things, and Cloud development.

The Quartz article also reviews the volume of research that suggests remote workers are more productive and log more hours. But they also explore the counter-argument: innovation may suffer as a result of remote workers.

As Quartz describes it, “Team proximity appears to help foster better new ideas.”

So while working remotely brings one set of benefits (productivity), working together brings other benefits (innovation).

It’s a balancing act – what does your company need? More productivity or more innovation?

For IBM there also is the bottom line. The company has struggled through quarter after quarter of disappointing results, so the move is part of a strategy to invigorate both top and bottom line growth.

The article is definitely worth a read. It says a lot about how a large organization sometimes has to make bold moves to move forward.

IBM like a lot of large companies has had challenges with growth, but Big Blue has proven that it is never shy about making a drastic change. How smart was it that they sold their PC business and later their servers?

Another thing I found interesting is that the article compares IBM to much younger firms – Google, Apple, Yahoo. I think that says a lot about IBM’s ambitions and also its ability to stay relevant. Not bad for a company with a history going back to the 19th century.