IBM pioneered telecommuting. Now it wants people back in the office.
Source: When Working From Home Doesn’t Work – The Atlantic
My good buddy Larry Kunz turned me onto this article, and gave me a heads-up that he’s also going to be commenting on this article soon, so be sure to check out his blog as well. Knowing that we both have a vested interest in remote working, Larry shared this article with me offline. I’m glad he did, since this article has been gaining some traction on LinkedIn lately.
This was an interesting article, indeed, and made quite the argument in favor of not working remotely, using the recent IBM remote call-back as an example. However, I saw flaws in the arguments made.
The main argument was that workers who worked farther away from each other, whether they actually worked remotely or simply had their desks significantly farther away from each other, communicated less often than those whose worked together and had their desks closer together. This was seen negatively in the article, but as someone who has worked remotely for several years, I didn’t see this as a problem. Why? Because it’s not different from those who are in distant outposts of present or yesteryear.
If you are farther apart, you become more self-sufficient, and you learn to fix the problem yourself. You are more motivated to get the job done knowing that you don’t necessarily have the same support system in place as if you had someone sitting next to you. You only communicate to your peers if you are really stuck and have tried all other options, or you communicate only what you need to communicate. Communication is lean purposely, and that’s not a bad thing. In this respect, it’s actually MORE efficient, and it makes remote workers more productive, independent, and stronger workers, because they become better problem solvers. It’s less of a waste of time and resources.
It also depends on the kind of work that’s being done as well. Yes, in the case of flying a plane (the example given in the article) you do need people there, and being in close proximity is an asset. A few verbal grunts or words and gestures do the trick. It doesn’t need as much communication, like emails, calls, IMs, etc. For most of us in technical communication, emails, video conferencing, phone calls, and IMs are normal things, whether you are at the office or not. Yes, some of the tech is a little faster at an office, but not by that much, at least in my area. Sometimes we have less network clog-ups working from home that being in the office. You also have fewer distractions working from home, which is important when trying to write complex documentation.
The other problem I had with this article is that it wasn’t specific as to the kind of work that was being done by the workers in these studies. Were they software or web developers? Were they tech writers? Were they the marketing department? Or did the studies lump everyone in the company together? That makes a difference. Despite being a huge advocate of remote working, I can own up to the fact that there are certain jobs or fields where you do need to have people in the office. For example, an IT department itself–not software or web development–is best served with people physically in the building to help with hardware issues like fixing a network server.
There’s still a fact that gets lost somehow, which applies especially for national and global companies. If you are making these same phone calls, IMs, emails, and video conferencing calls across the country or around the world to connect with your teams, what difference does it make whether you are physically in the office or not, if you have the appropriate tools to make the full connection? A video conference call from home performs exactly the same way as if it were in an office. It’s the same for all the other means of communication. As someone who has worked remotely for several years now, I can strongly assure you of this. There is little to no advantage to working in an office in these situations if your team is spread out nationally or globally while communicating through email, video conferencing, calls, etc. NONE. If anything, the only advantage I see is that in an office, you might get a lot of people sharing one conference line, albeit yelling across a room to a speakerphone to be heard. Nope, not even that is really an advantage. Most people don’t bother to learn how to use the mute button on their cell phones or home phones if they dial in, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things. And if communication is done correctly, you can still create those personal bonds with your colleagues globally. I’ve always been able to do that, working with people not only on the other side of my country, but in Europe and in Asia. It makes no difference–really! Like anything else, it’s all about the quality of the communication content exchanged.
To me, the people who are using whiteboards, sticky notes, and other physical means to get their point across are not being creative enough to figure out how to use technology to their advantage. There are online/web Agile tools, and even whiteboards built into apps, if that’s needed. You can share these tools–or share your screen so others can see the tools as well–in most video conferencing apps that I’ve ever used (and I’ve use most of the leading ones).
My experience is that most people either don’t want to use collaborative technology, don’t want to use it fully, or don’t take advantage of what collaborative technology can offer. So yes, this can slow down productivity if proper adoption isn’t done. It sounds like a lot of IBM workers are resistant to using those tools to the fullest.
You might also be surprised that in a more global economy than we’ve ever had before, this slowdown or collaborative technology resistance is bound to happen as we continue to evolve technologically. I remember when it wasn’t that long ago when you would hope and pray that a fax you were sending to the other side of the world got through okay. If it didn’t, then there were phone calls to see if it got through, and more attempts to fax information. That was slower and more inefficient. But emails, video conferencing, and the like at a long distance are “inefficient” and not as productive? Rubbish! It’s up to people to keep up with technology to enable what can be done, and use that technology to the fullest. You’d be truly, TRULY surprised at how slow those changes to keep up with technology are made with very large corporations. Even though IBM is thought to be a cutting edge company, how much do you want to bet that many office locations, or at least a significant part of the company, are still using Windows 7 or 8? I’ve worked for a global company that is cutting edge in its industry, but all the networks are still running of Windows 8–and that was the “new upgrade” as of last year! Seriously!
Having worked for several huge global corporations, they are always behind, so it’s no wonder they are not getting the efficiency and productivity that they think they should have. Understandably for security reasons, workers can’t upgrade their software tools on their own–not even just to update their browser versions–even if it’s the company approved ones! Or, be able to download standard security updates for their outdated Windows 8 systems without it being applied globally to everyone. It pulls everyone down.
So, this argument that the author of this article is making? It’s very one-sided, and looks at that side of the issue too broadly. We don’t know what specific kinds of departments are impacted by this, or if the higher number of communications between workers that were closer-by was quality, significant content, or if much of it was “fluff”. Volume of communications does not equal quality of communications. For example, how much of the communication content was actually co-workers asking each other when they wanted to go to lunch, and where? This article seems to only look at things from the perspective of the “pro-office” view, instead of looking at both sides carefully in a modern perspective.
Another part of what’s left out of this article is the quality of life part. People who work from home tend to actually be more productive, because they don’t have the commute and don’t have as many distractions. This allows workers to have an opportunity to balance their home life better, which allows them to be more relaxed, happier workers. There are plenty of studies on that.
I’m sure the arguments will continue to be made on both side of the pro-remote and anti-remote camps. Most people who read this blog frequently know which side of the equation I favor, at least in terms of technical communication. When I read this article, I thought that a Baby Boomer wrote it, but looking up the author’s profile, I was surprised to see that it was written by a Gen-X’er. It surprised me, because I know more Gen-X’ers who support remote work than don’t, and they like that flexibility. It’s usually the Boomers and the Millennials that like being at the office more.
What do you think of the arguments made by the author of this article? Do you think this is a balanced view of the pro- vs. con- remote work argument? Include your comments below.