The End of Telecommuting?

For many IBM employees, telecommuting will soon be a distant memory.

“Disrupt” is a catchy term in business these days, especially in the technology industry. Now one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent technology companies is disrupting what had become a common method of working for many of its employees: Thousands of IBM employees who telecommute are being called back to the office, and those who can’t or are unwilling to will be expected to find employment elsewhere.

Big Blue’s U.S. marketing department is the latest unit at IBM to announce that employees will now be “co-located” in central offices rather than working from home or in remote locations. The department, comprised of 2,600 employees, will now consist of teams working together at one of six offices located in Boston, New York, Raleigh, Atlanta, Austin and San Francisco.

Ironically enough, IBM was a pioneer in the telecommuting revolution, as noted in a story in Quartz. As recently as 2009, writes author Sarah Kessler, 40 percent of the company’s 386,000 global employees worked at home. When IBM acquired start-ups, the employees at those companies were allowed to continue working in their original locations rather than moving to central IBM offices.

Michelle Peluso, IBM’s chief marketing officer, tells Kessler that the benefits of employees working together in the same offices include “speed, agility, creativity and true learning experiences within your team.” “When you’re playing phone tag with someone is quite different than when you’re sitting next to someone and can pop up behind them and ask them a question,” she said.

Kessler cites studies showing a “water cooler effect” that arises from people working together in the same location — informal interactions that can lead to the sharing of ideas and more collaboration. CEOs such as Steve Jobs were big fans of co-location. Jobs, in fact, was so obsessed with the benefits that arise from unplanned meetings between coworkers that he wanted to place the bathrooms at Pixar’s headquarters in just one section of the building to increase the likelihood of those serendipitious interactions, Kessler writes.

IBM is struggling to reinvent itself, she writes, as the rise of cloud computing forces it and other large technology companies to rethink their business strategy. Its leaders believe having employees work together instead of remotely will better enable the sort of collaboration and increased productivity that’s desperately needed.

Of course, coworking has proven not to be a panacea for troubled companies in the past — just look at Yahoo, where CEO Marissa Mayer announced back in 2013 that telecommuting would no longer be allowed. Yahoo recently sold itself to Verizon for a tiny, tiny fraction of what it was once worth. Many IBM employees are distraught by the new arrangement: “Everyone I know is very upset,” one employee tells Kessler.

Other employees think co-location is an improvement over teleworking. “I think that getting everyone in a room, hashing it out, throwing it up on a whiteboard is my preference rather than doing share screens,” an employee tells Kessler. “People pay attention so much less when on the phone.”

That employee, however, is choosing to quit rather than make the move, Kessler writes.