The End of Remote Work?

In recent months, several major companies have announced they’re ending remote work programs. The latest enterprise to join the fray is IBM. In March 2017, CEO Ginny Rometti issued employees an ultimatum: Ditch the home office or find a new place to earn a paycheck.

Incredibly, IBM was one of the pioneers in establishing a telecommuting program and developing a work from home business model. In 2009, the company reported that 40 percent of its employees in 173 countries were remote workers, and the initiative had saved the firm almost $2 billion.

However, IBM said that it needed people in the office in order to confront the demands of the digital economy and the frenetic pace of change. Others, including Apple and Google, never joined the telecommuting revolution. They’ve adopted the position that collaboration is more than a FaceTime meeting or a SharePoint collaboration space.

There’s no question that an overreliance on videoconferencing and collaboration has a downside. In person, people pick up body language and visual cues. They engage more freely and they often gain greater understanding. For too many years, corporate bean counters have pushed electronic meetings when in-person interactions would produce better results.

Yet it’s also true that people are happier and more content when they work at home. Moreover, businesses now have powerful tools to measure work and understand whether a person is contributing adequately or not. We’ve moved light years beyond the dark days of Frederick Winslow Taylor and time-motion studies.

So, where does this leave businesses? Part of the problem is that there’s no single way to treat everyone and every work situation. As Mitch Liberman, director of research at business software firm G2, puts it: “There is a difference between working from home and working remote. There is a spectrum of remote work scenarios.”

The sad reality is that enterprise leaders too often check their thinking at the front door. It’s easier to introduce a monolithic program or policy than deal with the nuances of real people and actual situations — along with inevitable issues and complaints that arise. Yet, it’s critical to recognize that there are advantages, disadvantages and unintended consequences to either approach — especially when they’re taken to an extreme.

A smart work-at-home framework focuses on how to optimize tasks, promote work-life balance and address skills gaps. Liberman says that it’s important to examine situations in a nuanced way — revolving around core issues of trust, collaboration and whether a home office is productive and feasible. In the end, one thing is certain: A one-size-fits-all policy is probably the worst possible approach.

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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