Last year, IBM decided to “co-locate” its 2,600 member US marketing department. Translation? IBM is eliminating remote work.
The news is especially shocking as IBM is one of the pioneers of remote work, installing work-from-home terminals for some employees as far back as the 1980s.
As more businesses move toward embracing remote work, others are resisting the change or reversing course. But why?
IBM hasn’t said much on the matter, but its reasoning appears to be part of a larger reconfiguration effort around business agility. Facing stiff competition from startups and cloud-based vendors, it’s possible IBM believes focusing on in-office, face-to-face collaboration will help them innovate faster.
But we wanted to know what others had to say about the movement away from remote work. So we asked some of the leading experts on cloud accounting, and here are the responses we got.
Hybrid isn’t for everyone
Caleb Stephens, Controller, Automattic, believes some companies just aren’t built to support a partially remote/partially in-house staff.
“When your primary work environment is based on locations, and all of your infrastructure supports that model, there’s no real effort or infrastructure to properly support a distributed workforce,” he says. “It kinda needs to be one or the other, or be functionally aligned. All support personnel can be distributed, but finance/developers/marketing functions are location based. Or vice versa.”
Happy employees > Employees looking annoyed
According to Patti Scharf, Co-Founder and COO of cloud accounting firm Catching Clouds, IBM and others like it are plainly on the wrong side of history.
“I do agree there’s a different (and beneficial) dynamic in getting people together in real life, but I see that more as a ‘water cooler’ benefit,” she says. “It helps build the team’s trust and collaboration. But I don’t think you need that every day to get the results you want.”
Furthermore, Scharf cites the advantages of employing a remote staff as a net positive for business.
“There are real benefits in allowing your team to work from home,” she says. “They’re happier. They have more time (no commute). They are available for the needs of their families. And relaxed minds lead to creative thoughts. Yes, people meeting in person has some benefits, but do they outweigh the benefits of having a happy team? I’m not convinced.”
Scharf isn’t sure having staff on-site leads to greater productivity, as many of them will probably be pulling a George Constanza at least part of the time.
“I think when you work in an office with other people, you can ‘look’ busy, and it can help mask what’s not actually getting done,” she says. “When people work remotely, the managers must have crystal clear awareness about what they expect and have to be excellent communicators about those expectations.”
Oversight and security concerns
Matt Nyman, Client Success Manager, HPC, believes the movement away from remote may have more to do with trust than productivity.
“It’s harder to trust your staff when you don’t have a close knit team,” he says. “(These businesses) could have concerns about nexus and not increasing their footprint due to having employees in additional states.”
And with data breaches in the US at an all-time high, Nyman wonders if protecting company and customer info isn’t the real motivator behind the change.
“Security is a bigger concern for these larger companies with larger databases too, and it gets back to trust/oversight of such a big workforce,” he says.
Downsizing in disguise?
Blake Oliver, Senior Product Marketing Manager, FloQast, offers two theories: one sinister, one a bit more forgiving.
“The cynical take is that it’s a way to downsize without having to lay people off,” he says. “The slightly less cynical take is that when new leaders come into a stagnant business they feel the need to shake things up, and forcing everyone to co-locate is one way to do that.”
But ultimately, Nyman doesn’t think the movement away from remote is the right way to go.
“I don’t believe there’s much empirical evidence to suggest that remote work makes teams less effective overall — it’s just a different way of working together,” he says. “And there’s plenty of evidence that shows that employees who get to work from home are more productive.”