How to Avoid IBM’s Woes with Telework

Recent headlines proclaimed that many IBM departments have ditched the company’s long-standing and successful remote work program. Despite the attention those headlines garnered, empirical evidence shows that teleworking is on the upswing with many companies because it improves productivity, and it is one of the most popular non-monetary attractions to employees.

If you are recruiting, you need to be offering telework! Consider the following from

  • 80% to 90% of the U.S. workforce says they would like to telework at least two to three days a week.
  • Approximately 20% to 25% of today’s workforce teleworks with some frequency.
  • The number of regular work-at-home teleworkers, who are not self-employed, has grown 103% since 2005.
  • This is not a millennial thing. The average telecommuter is 49, college educated, and earns an average of $58,000 a year.
  • A typical business can save $11,000 per telecommuter per year.
  • Telecommuters can save $2000 to $7000 a year.
  • The average worker is not at his or her desk 50% to 60% of the time, indicating the need to rethink how to revamp offices to provide more collaborative space and videoconference rooms.

Given all of this, how do we explain the decisions of IBM and Yahoo, a bit earlier, to ditch their telework programs? IBM says it wants to improve collaboration (and innovation) and the pace of work by ending its program.

Analysts observe that IBM has had 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue and rising shareholder ire over CEO Ginni Rometty’s pay package[i].  Still, this decision is curious because of IBM’s success with telework, and its job postings that support telework, such as a recent “teleworks works” blog and a 2014 whitepaper highlighting the success of teleworking. In Yahoo’s case, former CEO Marissa Mayer said it was to reset the corporate culture. That didn’t go so well!

Are you thinking of beginning or expanding your telework program? Or, ditching one that already exists?

Here’s what you need to do to assure your company’s success with telework:

  1. Make it job specific. Recognize from the beginning that telework is not for every worker. Telework is based on the requirements of the job and the team. If a worker must be present to do a manufacturing job, be in a research lab to use its equipment, have access to data they can only access at the office (say, for security reasons), or need to be available for frequent face-to-face meetings and interactions, they must be physically at the office. If, on the other hand, most of their work is accomplished on the computer and most communications can be done over the phone, email, text or videoconference, they can usually work from home, or customers’ or suppliers’ sites three-to-four day a week. This latter group is usually 40% of the workforce. I recommend that when you determine which jobs do and don’t qualify for telework, be very transparent about your decisions to ward off any frustrations and ill feelings.
  2. Continually communicate and clarify. Telework, especially, requires that leaders do what they should have been doing all along: provide workers with clarity about the company’s business strategies, goals, and what excellence looks like. You also need to provide clarity on expected operating norms, such as how quickly to respond to others, which meetings will be face-to-face vs. digital, and where commonly used documents will be stored online.
  3. Certify the remote workplace. Teleworkers need to certify that they have a safe, ergonomically sound, and private, dedicated workspace at home. That workspace also needs to comply with your company’s security and safety requirements.  Working from a stool at the kitchen counter is not such a space! Certifying a workspace can easily be done. As with most things with leadership, it is about setting expectations. Do not allow or force employees to work from home, if they do not have a suitable space or do not have an interest in it.
  4. Rely mostly on trust and accountability, not compliance. Organizations with leaders and cultures that emphasize collaboration, trust and accountability, as well as inspire their workforce to a greater purpose, are more productive and innovative. They also have more loyal workers. The 19th century idea of a 9 to 5 job and sitting at your desk in the office while doing it, doesn’t drive productivity, collaboration, innovation, or loyalty. Given today’s digital technology, it is totally out of date!
  5. Redesign your office. You can quickly achieve cost savings from telework by redesigning your office space to allow workers and teams to choose what works best for them. I call this creating “flexible workplaces.”  For example, teleworkers no longer need to have a dedicated cube or patch of floor space when they are working from home or the customers’ site three-to-four days a week.  When they come into the office, it will usually be for meetings and collaborating with colleagues. They do not need a dedicated space for this.

The ubiquitous open office environment isn’t the answer for office based employees! Open office environments commonly lead to distracted, irritated, unproductive workers, who are required to come to work every day and wish they were somewhere else.[ii]

Instead, redesign your office space to provide your employees, with the space, time and technology they need to efficiently work and collaborate.

For many organizations, the best workspace design calls for more collaborative space for impromptu meetings, where the discussion won’t disturb others. Small huddle-rooms often fit that need. Organizations often need more high-quality videoconference rooms for face-to-face meetings or videoconferencing. Teams need dedicated team rooms which allow teams a common space to collaborate and access the data they need. Individual team members also need quiet spaces for “head-down” work, which is best done without interruption.

Data shows that redesigned workspaces can lead to significant reductions in real estate costs, even after the initial investment of new technology and furniture.

How is teleworking working for your company? Do you have questions? Join the discussion…

If you want to learn more about how to successfully implement and manage teleworking for your employees, I invite you to order my free report, “Form Follows Function: Flexible work arrangements and tailored office design improve productivity, morale and your ability to attract and retain critical workers!” at The report also includes a case study.

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 or visit For innovation visit

[i] John Simons (May 18, 2017 8:00 am, ET), “IBM, a Pioneer of Remote Work, Calls Workers Back to the Office. Big Blue says more will improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work”, The Wall Street Journal. Found at

[ii] There are several citations for this: Rachel Emma Silverman (Updated Dec. 11, 2012) “Workplace Distractions: Here’s Why You Won’t Finish This Article.” The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from; and Jacqueline Vischer (May 1999) “Will This Open Space Work?” Harvard Business Review; and Maria Konnikova (January 7, 2014) “The Open Office Trap,” The New Yorker; and Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn, and Melanie Redman. (October 2014) “Balance ‘We’ and ‘Me’: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude,” Harvard Business Review.






  1. Here’s a provocative take on the issue… For me, the most telling statistic in the thinkpiece was that on average 75% of the financial savings from telework go to the company. What would happen if the company was required to share those savings with the worker, or even to pass them ALL on to the worker, would it still see merit in teleworking? Sure, apologists claim there are other benefits, but whether those are real cannot be properly tested while the company has a financial incentive to disperse its workforce.

    And one further factor that companies should perhaps to consider in deciding whether teleworking is appropriate: the life cycle stage of the worker and the team. There is some evidence that teleworking can be effective once team roles and relationships have been established, but problematic when membership or (especially) leadership of the team changes.

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