Rethinking Remote Work

Some organizations, particularly struggling ones, are reconsidering telework.

IBM is the latest firm to announce an end to remote working arrangements—a practice it popularized and enabled through its products and advertising.

It seems there’s a trend, particularly in struggling companies ranging from Best Buy a few years ago, to Yahoo, and now, IBM (20 quarters of declining revenues) to find it a requirement to house employees near one another.

For knowledge worker organizations dependent upon the best and brightest, this reversion to old thinking seems . . . old, and mostly wrong. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that it is a complicated issue.

Two Schools of Thought

Over my career in software and technology firms, I have been exposed to two schools of practice for remote work.

One camp was opposed to the idea, operating with what I perceived was an unspoken assumption that employees could not be trusted to work if they were out of the line of sight of managers. That was (and is) short-sighted, untrusting, and petty thinking.

The other school embraced the idea wholeheartedly (and sometimes naively) and invested in technologies and approaches to enable distance workers to participate and collaborate.

In our software firms, the distance effort mostly worked, particularly if we allocated liberal budgets for travel and regular face-to-face contact with teams and colleagues. There were headaches and shortcomings, but the need for the talent and the benefits that accrued from our remote work approach outweighed the costs, as evidenced by our innovation and resultant growth in sales and profits.

I navigated serving as a senior executive in two firms over 11 years living 4 hours away from headquarters (one by car, the other by plane). There were pros and cons to the arrangements for me personally, and I still have a few conflicting perspectives on the topic:

  • There’s no doubt people can do great work outside of the boundaries of corporate offices. Social overhead and bureaucratic noise levels are both significantly lower for remote workers, enabling increased time and focus on creative problem-solving and general productivity.
  • On the other hand, efforts at collaborating with groups—no matter the technology—still come up short of the quality of face-to-face participation. You are never quite part of the rhythm of the dialog when you are remote. Rather, you are punctuation and interruption.
  • For those managing others from a distance, the casual interactions and hallway conversations are non-existent. I worked hard at maintaining a steady rhythm of casual encounters via cell phone and video conferencing and encouraged the same in return, but it was extra work.
  • Remote working flexibility enables leaders to cast a wider net for talent that might not otherwise be accessible to a firm. On the other hand, the onboarding and acculturation processes for new, remote employees are slower and clunkier.
  • In my case as an executive, I supplemented my distance working with what in hindsight was an incredible number of trips via car or plane.
  • Travel exacts physical, mental, and financial costs that add up over time.

It is not surprising to me that firms under pressure almost reflexively abandon remote working practices. The gravity of the situation and the heightened need for control, coordination, and collaboration expose the weaknesses of remote work. It’s just harder to pull together, communicate, focus, solve, and innovate when people are working in different locations.

I also can imagine that senior managers view the cost and overhead as unacceptable when attempting to pull off cultural and business change where many contributors are isolated from the group.

Of the two locations I served in a senior capacity while operating remotely (along with many of my peers), only one pulled it off effectively as a senior management team during a period of significant change. The other ground the gears in part, because leadership allowed the distance factors with executives to become an issue. (This same firm did a great job with remote employees below the executive level.)

‘Move or Leave’ Is Not The Answer

In spite of my mixed feelings on the topic I struggle with the soundness of IBM’s rejoin the group or leave approach.

For knowledge workers and valued contributors who have been remote for over a decade, this binary policy must seem like a slap in the face.

It’s also a lousy way to drive attrition when the numbers are poor, and the potential cost of losing significant contributors while retaining mediocre contributors is potentially high.

A Better Approach is to:

  • Solve your headcount problem directly.
  • Keep the best workers and greatest brains for the big push to reinvent.
  • Adapt your policies, processes, and approaches to increase presence and engagement.

Just don’t potentially send loyal, valuable contributors running out the door over the remote working issue.

You need the best and brightest workers possible to survive and thrive in this world of change, particularly if you are under pressure. The location should never be the issue. Every approach to managing workforce location comes with pros and cons. On the margin, an adaptive approach that allows you to retain the best and brightest must win.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.

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