Telecommuting Pioneer IBM: We’ll See You at the Office

Carl Weinschenk

The rise of telecommuting has been one of the more important IT trends of the past decade. More companies are open to it, and mobile technology that has grown by orders of magnitude and concepts such as the cloud has made the idea of decentralized employment far more accepted.

Telecommuting was in the news last week, albeit in a minor way. In Atlanta, arsonists set a fire that caused a section of I-85 to collapse. AJC reported that Georgia Power and Coca-Cola messaged workers that telecommuting was an option. Many other companies no doubt sent their workers the same message.

It’s interesting that the progress of telecommuting is not all in one direction, however. Indeed, one of the early champions of the form of work, IBM, is backtracking on telecommuting. Quartz reported that Big Blue is calling telecommuting marketing employees in the U.S. back to the office. Those who can’t (or won’t) comply will be fired. The story reports that the 2,600 employees affected will now be housed at offices in New York City; Boston; Raleigh, NC; Atlanta; Austin and San Francisco.

This would be a big change for any company. It is even higher profile because of IBM’s telecommuting history. The story says that in 2009, 40 percent of its workers telecommuted. Employees of acquired companies were allowed to telecommute. An added irony is that the stated reason is one that has long been used as an argument against telecommuting:


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.

InformationWeek columnist Andrew Froehlich suggested that the decision by IBM to call people back to the office, as well as a similar decision by Yahoo in 2013, may have been due to the very fact that the companies are old school. Froehlich didn’t claim inside knowledge, but he reasoned that the companies may have been relying on old technology and thereby setting themselves up for lackluster results. Even if new equipment is provided, big companies are less likely to have tight controls. This could lead to a higher percentage of employees sticking with older and less efficient gear with which they are comfortable.

The move by IBM is high profile, but Froehlich suggests that it not be taken as a sign of the downfall of telecommuting. Rather, the news can be a teachable moment:

Most organizations are likely to continue their telecommuting ambitions despite what’s in the news. But it’s important to look at cases such as Yahoo and IBM to see where they possibly failed to avoid the costly and damaging effects of a full-blown telecommuting reboot. Being vigilant in vetting and replacing aging telecommuting tools – as well as properly training staff on new tools – is an excellent place to start.

The main takeaway is that telecommuting today is not the same as telecommuting even a few years ago. That’s good: The technology is improving. Companies must keep pace with those changes, however.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

 


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