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IBM Just Committed Cultural and Creative Suicide

IBM has told its employees that they can’t work from home. The end of “Big Blue” is nigh.

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BY Geoffrey James - 21 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

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 IBM's 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% of its employees worked 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 the fact, that it's circular reasoning, that's the kind of sentence that sounds all important but which says absolutely nothing, 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 the number of meeting 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 "digital marketing") is that you don't have to be in the same physical space with people to connect with them?

In any case, 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?

But let's say that for the sake of argument, IBM made an honest mistake and now realizes 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 going to start behaving like a bunch of gung-ho 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, it will play out like this:

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 illness.

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 working (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. Working from home is a natural check on the tendency for large organizations to micro-manage.

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 and discredited management fad.

Sad. So sad.

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