For years, IBM has touted its "work from home" policy as a reason for its continued success.

And rightly so. IBM's financial performance has shown steady improvement ever since the mid-'90s, when the internet made "work from home" practical, using tools that IBM pioneered, like email, groupware, and Web conferencing.

IBM hasn't had an unprofitable year since 1994, and its revenue per share has more tripled since then. During that period, IBM has created more innovation than any other company. In 2016 alone, IBM filed more patents than Google, Apple, and Microsoft combined.

You'd think that IBM's executives would realize that the company's unparalleled record of financial growth and innovation might somehow be connected with the fact that, at last count, about 40 percent of its employees work from home.

But you'd think wrong.

IBM management has decided to kill the goose that's laid decades-worth of golden eggs by forcing its workers to report to regional facilities. Employees who don't comply will be fired.

Why the change? Here's the corporate explanation:

"In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working. We are bringing small, self-directed, agile teams in these fields together."

There is so much that's stupid about that statement that I hardly know where to start.

Take, for example, "the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working." Aside from being circular reasoning, that's the kind of sentence that sounds important but which is platitudinous to the point of meaninglessness, like "the future is rapidly approaching."

But even the tiny shred of meaning in the sentence is dead wrong. "Software development"--the kind that results in software products--has always and will always consist primarily of writing code and testing it.

Yes, you have design meetings and discussions to hash things out but, as a general rule, past a certain point, the number of meetings in a software development organization is inversely proportional to the amount of code they produce.

Writing and testing code is an intensely private activity that requires concentration and focus. An open plan office is the worst possible place to try to do that type of work.

As for "digital marketing," the entire point of social media (which I suppose is what they mean by the fuzzy buzzword "digital marketing") is that you don't have to be in the same physical space with people to connect with them?

IBM has been telling us for years--no, decades--that the ideal model for business is a "global enterprise"--where people around the world can work together to achieve big goals. If that's true, what's the advantage of clustering people in the same physical environment? Has IBM been lying to us all along?

Not to mention the phrase "small, self-directed teams" is just so much biz-blab. Does "self-directed" mean that the teams will have no managers? Are IBMs top execs expecting the collaboration fairy to fly down and turn creative work into something that a group, rather than an individual, can accomplish? Apparently they haven't checked out the extensive research showing that brainstorming doesn't work.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that IBM made an honest mistake and now realizes--after decades of saying the contrary--that the ideal work environment consists not of a global enterprise but of "small, self-directed, agile teams."

What are chances that IBM--where the average age of an employee is probably smack in the center of the Fox News demographic--will suddenly start behaving like a bunch of gung-ho, just-out-of-college Millennials?

I'll answer that question. The chance that will happen is exactly 0 percent. Asking IBM employees to be productive in a Google-like office environment is like asking Tony Bennett to sing while he's skateboarding.

So what, then, will really happen now that IBM has made this change? Well, if what happened after Yahoo tried the same stunt is any guide, the future will play out as follows:

  1. Some top talent will immediately leave. While IBM claims that "the vast majority of workers who have been asked to return to the office have agreed to do so," it doesn't take much reading between the lines to see that there have already been some departures.
  2. The erstwhile work-from-home employees will be resentful and angry. And rightly so, since multiple studies have shown that two of the perks that employees value the most are privacy and flexibility, both of which IBM has effectively killed, while simultaneously adding hours of commute time to their no doubt already busy schedules.
  3. The open plan office will wreak its usual havoc. For workers accustomed to the quiet freedom of working at home, the noise and chaos of an open plan office will cause their stress levels to rise and their health to decline. Absenteeism will grow apace, as will serious illnesses among employees.
  4. Engineering will grind to a halt. Unless IBM plans to give all their engineers private offices (hah!), the percentage of time that workers spend in meetings will increase dramatically while the percentage of time that people spend doing real work (i.e. actually doing something other than chit-chat, like coding or writing) will plummet.
  5. Micro-management will overwhelm everything. The major unspoken reason for forcing people to into an open office is that it gives managers the opportunity to constantly oversee what people are doing. Open plan offices are a recipe for micro-management. Working from home is a natural check on the tendency for managers to be unproductively intrusive.
  6. IBM's financials will decline to reflect the destruction of productivity. It will be goodbye to Big Blue and hello to Yahoo!

It's ironic, really. IBM has survived and prospered through huge waves of massively disruptive technology. Now the company is shooting itself in the head to pursue a flaky, discredited management fad.

Sad. So sad.

How Michael Dell Took on IBM During His Freshman Year of College
Published on: May 21, 2017