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Work & Purpose

Why the IBM Policy Against Working From Home Is a Mistake

A tech company exec says forcing people into the office doesn't work


(This article previously appeared on LinkedIn.com.)

It’s hard to believe more than four years have passed since the Marissa Mayer working-from-home debacle, when the Yahoo CEO told her 14,500 remote employees they needed to work in the company’s offices or they could be fired. Video conferencing and unified communication vendors were some of the first to join in on criticizing Mayer, and in my opinion, rightfully so. In 2013, it was already possible to work from just about anywhere — our partner BlueJeans had a field day with Mayer’s new policy. And despite the fact that all employees showed up to the office each day, not much changed at Yahoo.

First, Yahoo, and Now, IBM

Flash forward to 2017, and another global tech company — IBM — is implementing a similar policy, originally reported by The Wall Street Journal. Unsurprisingly, it too is drawing criticism.

For me, this move is the antithesis to motivating employees and driving engagement.

The company wouldn’t say how many of its 380,000 employees would be required to decide within 30 days whether to move to company-maintain office space; the policy change so far has been rolled out to divisions the Wall Street Journal says employ tens of thousands of workers: Watson, software development, digital marketing and design. (In the past, the Journal said, IBM has boasted that more than 40 percent of its employees worked outside traditional company offices.)

Why Barring Workers From Working Remotely Doesn’t Work

Haven’t we learned this doesn’t work? It’s fascinating for me to watch another global tech leader use such a broad-sweeping policy as a blanket solution to its struggles. Why? Because as Jeff Boss says in his Forbes article, “Where people work isn’t as important as how or why they work.”

Any successful company aims to get the most out of its employees. For me, this move is the antithesis to motivating employees and driving engagement. If you have a collaborative culture with engaged, motivated employees, it doesn’t matter where people work. Period.

Just this morning, I was on a video call with a dozen chief information officers (CIOs), and each and every one agrees that remote collaboration is the key to hiring your best talent. Expertise is not in the office — it’s everywhere, and in order to tap into it, you have to support remote workers.

At Logitech, we use video conferencing every single day. And I don’t just mean within the video collaboration team. We all use video all the time for every meeting.

Why Hiring Based on Location Is Foolish

Some of our best employees and our greatest thinkers are remote. Within my own team, we hire the most qualified people. We don’t hire based on location. It would be foolish to do so. Even with our Bay Area-based employees, we encourage those who live in San Francisco to work from home a couple days a week to avoid a long commute, sitting in traffic — simply wasting time.

We do this because it makes their lives easier and it helps them establish work-life balance. If we forced them to do the commute every day, I guarantee they’d be looking for a job with an easier commute.

Work follows you wherever you are, and companies need to both respect this and enable remote collaboration. Our remote workers are engaged. They attend meetings via video, which for the most part, eliminates the need for us to be in the same physical space.

How the IBM Decision Could Backfire

So when I read about tech companies forcing their employees back into the office, I think, “Good for you. What you’re doing is basically urging some of your best people to dust off their resumés and look for a new job. Will you weed out some of your less productive employees? Yes, probably. But you’ll probably also lose some of your best talent… maybe they’ll come to Logitech.”

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By Scott Wharton
Scott Wharton is the vice president and general manager of the video collaboration group at Logitech, a leading provider of video conferencing solutions for businesses of all sizes. Previously, he was the founder and CEO at Vidtel, a pioneer in cloud-based any-to-any video conferencing services.

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