IBM ends remote work: but it’s really just another layoff

Remember: it’s not about geography, or productivity. It’s about bureaucracy.

IBM — which means CEO Ginni Rometty and the senior team — have backed off on the company’s history of remote work, and they are forcing tens of thousands of workers to come to the office, relocating if necessary, instead of working from their home office. They haven’t shared the actual number, which means it’s so large it will stick in the throat.

It smells suspiciously like Yahoo’s move after Marissa Mayer became CEO (see What Marissa Mayer’s ‘no remote work’ dictate means, and Yahoo’s Mayer thinks that remote workers are… too remote), and decreed that a cultural transformation had to happen, and right now, at the failing internet was-once-a-giant. Note that it didn’t succeed at Yahoo, except in a bottomline way.

The stark reality of IBM’s situation — 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue — does raise the question of the judgment of those making this decision. How do they know that this massive shake up will lead to the end they desire?

IBM, a Pioneer of Remote Work, Calls Workers Back to the Office | John Simons

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.

More likely the underlying principle is that making people come to the office means they can be watched and managed more directly, but that isn’t strongly correlated with better results or increased output. The reality is that the arguments about remote work aren’t about geography: it’s about bureaucracy.

So, where’s the proof?

But they don’t need proof. Rometty and Co. need to point at actions being taken to turn the company’s decline around, so this is likely a smokescreen, and a way to get rid of a bunch of high-priced workers without calling it a layoff.

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IBM Sametime, one of the company’s tools to support wherever/whenever work.

The strangest thing is to position old-fashioned 9-to-5 in the office as some advance over what IBM’s been doing. Remember that IBM makes social tools — like Sametime, Verse, and Connections — whose value proposition is that people can work together effectively no matter where they are.

So what are they going to tell their customers now? Forget the tools, have more meetings?

Originally published at

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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