IBM reduces telecommuting options

A decade or two ago, thanks to the fast spread of WiFi and more disconnected work environments, telecommuting was all the rage. But, just as quickly as it began, one major American company has decided enough is enough. Working in your PJs is no longer okay with IBM, at least for a significant number of the company’s employees.

As of last week, it was announced that IBM plans to bring the majority of its current telecommuting workforce – roughly 40 percent of the company’s 400,000 employees – back into the office. IBM explained its reasons in a public statement, which read, in part:

“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.”

While there are no hard numbers on how many employees will no longer be allowed to telecommute, at least not yet, sources have indicated that it will be a great many. And there will be some exceptions.

Further muddying the waters, the statement said IBM would allow for some employees to appeal and be allowed to work from home, while others would be terminated if they chose to resist coming back into the office.

This announcement marks a big change from the salad days of telecommuting when IBM was a national leader in the new office trend. As far back as 1995, IBM was tracking how many of its employees worked from home … which, at the time, was a big step for a company that had been made famous for its strict dress and behavior code at the office.

By the latter part of the 2000s, IBM said its telecommuting gamble had paid big dividends, allowing the company to reduce its expenditures, including about 78 million square feet of office space, some of which the company was able to sell, generating a nearly $2 billion windfall.

Times change, though, and companies are looking to exert more control over employee behavior and productivity. While it may be one of the first and biggest to take this step, it’s likely IBM will not be the last.

The question some are already arguing, though, is will it be worth it? So much is possible now working remotely, that it kills key productivity hours to force workers to commute. That said, for some companies, being able to have their people “in house” creates a much more productive and inspired environment. Time will tell if that’s the case for IBM.

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States.

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