Last week, IBM told employees that full-time telecommuting was done and everyone would need to work in one of six offices. I strongly denounced this change as short-sighted. Bruce Hall, President and CMO of Eureka! Inventing, disagreed with me. He points out that making long-term company direction decisions based on the current crop of employees may not be the best plan.
Hall believes that company mission is the most important thing. He says:
As an innovation and growth consultant for some of the best companies in the world (Procter & Gamble, Hallmark, Pepsi, American Express, etc.), I have come to realize that the "mission" is the most important factor to determine long-term success. When employees are not physically in the same location or in groups it is very challenging to keep the mission alive. They must spend time with each other to reinforce the mission, build passion and have a singular focus on the mission.
While Hall and I disagree that being in the same office is necessary to building a team, I do agree that being together physically is helpful. That's why I prefer a part-time telecommuting situation, where you're in the office sometimes and at home sometimes. That gives you the best of both worlds.
Hall believes telecommuting often results in a "task list" kind of management---you do your tasks I'll do mine and the project will get done. He thinks the world is "too competitive" to have that work. Teams need passion and communication to achieve the mission of the company.
As an expert in developing corporate missions, Hall's company teaches teams to collaborate and has had great results--he reports seeing increases of 250 percent or greater when they teach people to focus on the mission.
Hall says, "The new CMO of IBM is right to pull them together in a few groups across the world. You can't build a mission with hundreds of singular contributors across the world. That is way too hard. There is a level of peer pressure and reinforcement that exists in groups that is very positive and will ultimately lead to greater results."
He and I do agree on one thing--this was handled poorly. I suggested that if it were the right thing to bring everyone in, I would have individually courted the high performers and offered them custom relocation packages to convince them to come in. Hall agrees and says he would have gone one step further.
I might even go a step further to determine which ones are committed to the mission and selectively provide relocation packages. This is a great opportunity to purge those that don't fit in the going-forward mission and have the skills that are required.
For example, if they were working at home for years my guess is they were doing a lot of specific tasks with little ambiguity and conceptual context. The nature of working from home requires that the tasks can be well defined.
My Inc. colleague, Jeff Haden has a seven-word telecommuting policy that focuses on the need to communicate.
Get your work done.
Following that pattern means that you don't need to have super defined tasks, like Hall says are required for a remote worker. But in Hall's experience, "winning in marketing requires deeper thought than in the past and it is too hard to do this remotely through a digital world."
IBM has not been winning, as defined by experiencing growth, as they've had consistent decline for 19 quarters. Clint Roswell, Director of External Communications at IBM believes that this will not only allow for the better communication that Hall advocates, but will allow for more career opportunities for the employees. While limiting people to six locations rather than being able to work from just about anywhere is necessarily limiting, when you are together it's easier to communicate with people outside your immediate team. Those casual hallway conversations can result in more opportunities.
So, maybe Hall is right and this is the right overall change, even if it is a rocky beginning. Time will tell. And unlike Yahoo, IBM isn't canceling all telecommuting--just full-time telecommuting, which is a significant difference. Maybe this is the move that will save IBM over the long-term if they can just survive the next year.