IBM to homeworkers: Get back to the office. Now.

Watson Labs
© Inside the Watson Labs, Eero Saarinen

Four years ago, we wrote Yahoo to homeworkers: Get back to the office. Now. There was widespread outrage at this order. In Quartz it was described as “the worst decision Marissa Mayer has made in her tenure as Yahoo CEO.” Now Yahoo is sold and Marissa is gone.

Now the same thing is happening at another struggling tech company, IBM. According to John Simons in the Wall Street Journal,

IBM is giving thousands of its remote workers in the U.S. a choice this week: Abandon your home workspaces and relocate to a regional office—or leave the company. The 105-year-old technology giant is quietly dismantling its popular decades-old remote work program to bring employees back into offices, a move it says will improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work.

ibm connectIBM Connect/Video screen capture

As Simons notes, this is pretty surprising given how much IBM has invested in software and services for “the anytime, anywhere workforce.” Many workers are stunned, having been doing it for years.

TreeHugger and others promoted working from home because it gets cars off the road, using technology instead of gasoline to work with others. (See Sami's Hidden eco-benefits of working from home.) But that apparently isn’t good enough anymore.

Big Blue’s leaders want employees to work differently now, said Laurie Friedman, a company spokeswoman. The company has rebuilt design and digital marketing teams to quickly respond to real-time data and customer feedback, collaborations that happen more easily when teams work shoulder to shoulder.

Sarah Kessler writes in Quartz that a full 40 percent of IBM employees worked remotely in 2009, and that the company saved millions in real estate costs.The demand to move back is harsh: Commute, move, or find a new job.

“Everyone I know is very upset,” says one employee, who like most interviewed asked to remain anonymous while discussing an employer. Some workers furiously began looking for new jobs. Others say they have stopped contributing to long-term projects because they aren’t sure whether they’ll be around in the future. A theory among some employees is that IBM is using co-location as a downsizing effort. One referred to the colocation move as “the massacre.”

Kessler goes on about the “water cooler effect,” where supposedly good ideas come from chance encounters and unplanned interactions. Evidently Steve Jobs was obsessed with it. Facebook and Google also disapprove of telecommuting.

In addition to documenting “the water cooler effect,” studies have shown benefits of physical proximity such as more effective communication, better understanding between coworkers, and more collaboration. These results jibe with common sense. “When you’re playing phone tag with someone is quite different than when you’re sitting next to someone and can pop up behind them and ask them a question.”

office spaceOffice Space/Screen capture

It all reminds me of a scene from Office Space. When I worked in an office I never quite knew how to deal with people popping up behind me. I like our virtual water cooler. I haven’t played phone tag in a decade – that’s why we have Skype and Slack.

Watson Research LabLibrary of Congress/ Watson Labs/Public Domain

To their credit, IBM does have a history of providing beautiful offices by top architects and designers. Saarinen even built a round one for them long before Norman Foster did it for Apple.

They still brag about their design chops:

By forming the first corporate design program at IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., and Eliot Noyes forged a partnership that would shape thinking around corporate design and culture for decades to come. They believed that corporate design must be informed by character rather than surface image, and that “good design is good business.” Today, as a result of Watson and Noyes’s efforts, these principles continue to serve as some of the foundational tenets of the field of corporate design.

I could work in that, if it wasn't in Rochester, Minnesota.

IBM to homeworkers: Get back to the office. Now.
Telecommuting just isn't fashionable anymore; the "water cooler effect" is.

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