IBM Marketing Calls It Quits on Telecommuting. It Doesn’t Have to Be All or Nothing!

After being a leader in telecommuting, IBM is calling it quits, due to declining revenues.  At least, it’s calling it quits in its marketing organizations in the US and Europe. It feels like a Marissa Mayer step backwards – it is sure to increase turnover, as well as lower morale and productivity.

There is a better way than “all or nothing” with telecommuting.

In a confidential video message to staff seen by a few publications[i], IBM’s Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso, told her US marketing troops that, along with not being able to telecommute, they must work at “a smaller set of locations,” if they want to continue with the company. Staffers have 30 days to decide whether to stay, or go.

The implication is that IBMers who either telecommute or work at a smaller district office will now have a few weeks to either quit their jobs, or commit to moving to another part of the US. The company’s employee badge system will be used to ensure that employees come into the office, rather than stealthily remain remote workers.  Ms. Peluso said the goal is not cost cutting, but improving performance. She also said that in the battle with West Coast companies, such as Microsoft, she needed to have her team in inspiring offices so that they can benefit from the “X factor” of bringing people closer together.

Previously, other IBM departments, such as design, security, procurement, IT and some of the Watson artificial intelligence design teams were moved back into offices. The reason? Being co-located stokes innovation and, despite filing 8,000 patents last year, IBM needs more innovation.

Co-location does help with innovation, but in most cases, it is not necessary 24/7. Innovation involves diverse thinking and often global inputs, which can’t be housed within the same building. Even great innovators need time for private thought and heads down work. Moreover, virtual teams can be just as productive as co-located teams, if the right team alignment, structure and operating norms are in place.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I have successfully set up flexible work arrangements that allowed 25% of employees to work from home or on the road with clients and/or supply chain and technology partners. When the sales force was included, it was 40%. These individuals included the members of marketing who were involved with brand. They supported customers and the sales force, and were involved in launching new products. We kept marketing administrative staff and upstream marketing employees in the office, so they could work shoulder to shoulder with the member of their innovation teams. But, they had liberal flextime. (Upstream marketing is involved in market and customer research and works with R&D and others on innovation teams to design and launch new products).

Speaking more broadly about telecommuting and flexible work arrangements – it is important to note they are not for every worker. Who gets to telecommute and who physically reports into the office depends largely on their role and when, where and how their team works, who their customers are, and their external partners. Before allowing employees to telecommute, it is critical to understand their required face-to-face time, computer interfaces, and the technology and travel required to do their jobs. These can be identified for each job role.

Those whose job roles are tied to technology, labs or manufacturing, files, and group sessions that take place in the office, need to be there. However, for up to 40% of the workforce, the 1900’s notion of everyone needing to come into work every day is not only out-of-date in the digital workplace, it limits employee time available for work and lowers morale. It even drives up costs. And, the open office environments so popular today cause so many distractions that worker productivity (and even collaboration itself) suffers.

The far better approach for companies is, for workers who can telecommute, provide the time, technology, operating norms and clarity on roles, goals, communication, information flows and decision rights to operate effectively while doing so. Bringing those workers into the office one or two days a week helps keep alignment with the company’s goals and provides for ample face-to-face time. For employees who need to come into work every day, redesign the office environment to allow for more privacy, team space and great videoconference rooms. (To learn more about making flexible work arrangements work, I invite you to download my free white paper, “Form Follows Function.”

I wish IBM and its marketing employees well, but I question whether Watson, if given a chance, would recommend this.

What has been your experience with telecommuting and flexible work arrangements? Join the discussion.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on innovation, global talent management, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visit www.victorhrconsultant.comFor innovation visit www.InnovationOne.io.

[i] Shaun Nichols, (Feb. 8, 2017, 6:58) “IBM’s Marissa Mayer moment: Staff ordered to work in one of 6 main offices – or face the axe,” The Register. Found at https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/02/08/ibm_no_more_telecommuting/; and Gene Marks, March 24, 2017, 9:24 AM), “IBM is ordering its work-from-home employees to stop working from home,” The Washington Post. Found at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-small-business/wp/2017/03/24/ibm-is-ordering-its-work-from-home-employees-to-stop-working-from-home/?utm_term=.8d0796c96452.

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