Things were going well for proponents of telework and telecommuting. The practice was growing steadily. It was aided greatly by the parallel development of a generation of sophisticated mobile devices; the emergence of the cloud; and a growing belief that reducing commuting helps employee morale, the environment and the companies’ image.
The success is undeniable. The National Study of Employers found that 66 percent of employers occasionally allow telework and 40 percent do so on a regular basis. Brie Reynolds, a senior career specialist at FlexJobs and Remote.co told IT Business Edge that the number of companies that allow telework continues to increase year over year and that an increasing number of businesses rely mostly or completely on staffs that work in this manner.
But a funny thing happened earlier this year that threatens that positive momentum. IBM, one of the earliest and strongest advocates of telework, reversed course. In March, Big Blue said that about 2,600 US. marketing department workers will report to six regional offices. Those not able or willing to get to the offices, which are in New York City; Boston; Raleigh, NC; Atlanta; Austin and San Francisco, would lose their jobs.
The decisions made by IBM and other high-profile firms, such as Best Buy and Yahoo, were not made randomly. The driving force, according to an article on the IBM move at Quartz, is that telework has always been seen as a trade-off. On one side are reduced expenses and employee convenience. On the other is employee creativity. The idea is that being around coworkers stimulates thinking and promotes innovation. Chance encounters and spontaneous meetings can’t happen if people are physically dispersed. In the case of IBM and the other companies, the desire to capture creative sparks apparently won over expense reductions and employee convenience.
Does the move by IBM suggest that the telework wave has crested and that companies will start reverting to their old school ways?
The actual impact will be minimal, according to Kenneth Matos, the vice president of Research for Life Meets Work and lead author of The National Study of Employers.
“I believe that IBM’s pull back will have little real effect on telework, similar to the effects of Yahoo and Best Buy’s retraction of telework,” he wrote in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. “Though these are all big name brands, they all pulled back on telework during tough times. Few leaders are going to rush out to emulate a competitor who is struggling to get back on track. Now if a major brand that was already doing well announced that its plans to grow and be even stronger were built around pulling back on telework, that would be another story.”
That’s understandable, but it’s hard to deny that the optics of a telework pioneer suddenly threating to fire folks who don’t report to the office are bad. After all, if the leading proponent of something reverses direction, people will take note.
It is not surprising that telework proponents tend to brush off the reverses as minority views. Telework, they say, is stable and riding the crest of an increasingly favorable technical landscape.
“Mobile and cloud technologies have completely changed the way many professionals work every day,” Reynolds wrote in response to emailed questions for IT Business Edge. “For most people who work primarily on computers and phones, a home office can now be a completely productive, comfortable alternative to the traditional office.”
Proponents insist that the future will be kind to organizations that employ telework because of who they will be hiring. Those entering the workforce are not interested in being chained to a desk in a corporate office and, due to being raised in the online world, have mastered the art of cooperating over distance.
“It’s incumbent upon any organization to adapt to the movement of technology and work styles as new graduates come into the workforce,” wrote Steve Pruden, the senior vice president of Human Resources at digital consultant Appirio.
That’s perhaps the most important driver of telework: Society expects it. “With new technologies and new generations entering the workforce, we believe telework options will [come] to be an expectation from knowledge workers,” wrote Leo Tucker, the senior vice president of Global Marketing for conferencing vendor PGi. “And I have learned first-hand that remote working options are a great way to recruit and incent associates. With the rapid pace of collaboration innovation, we’ll continue to see enterprises embracing telework options and in the future perhaps the search for the right team members will transcend local boundaries to encompass global possibilities.”
Changing ways of working suggest that the apparent rationale for IBM and the others pulling back – that proximity is a necessary ingredient to creativity and efficiency – are less persuasive. The ubiquity and quality of video conferencing equipment further reduces the requirement that everyone work in the same office. While nothing will ever totally replace being down the hall from co-workers, technology is reducing the cost of not being together.
It’s fair to say that despite the surprising move by IBM, telework has fully established itself as the coequal of traditional approaches. The next step, according to Matos, is updating social software to enable it to keep pace with hardware infrastructure. The bottom line, he wrote, is that things look bright. “Looking forward, I see telework staying and possibly growing and more holdout companies see the potential value.”
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 [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.