In February of this year, William Arruda wrote in Forbes that, ‘There’s no arguing that the 9-to-5, 40-hour work week, with your entire team located near you, is gone. And it’s not coming back.’ The evidence would seem to suggest that Arruda is correct in his assertions. Remote working has exploded over the last decade, driven primarily by chat programs and cloud computing, which has allowed documents and work systems to be accessed from anywhere in the world. More than 60% of organizations surveyed by the Society of Human Resource Management this year said they allow some type of telecommuting, up from 20% in 1996. The 2017 State of Telecommuting in the US Employee Workforce study, meanwhile, found that telecommuting increased by 115% between 2005 to 2015.
However, it would appear the tide is turning. Just a month after Arruda’s Forbes article, IBM - one of the earliest proponents of remote working - decided to end the practice for its entire US marketing department of about 2,600 people. Instead, all teams would work together from one of six different locations - Atlanta, Raleigh, Austin, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. They join a growing list of major companies who have brought their staff back into the office, including Reddit, Bank of America, Aetna, and Yahoo.
The benefits of remote working have been espoused in many an article in recent years. It is something employees say they want, particularly millennials, who now make up the majority of the workforce. According to Forbes, a huge ’85% of Millennials want to telecommute 100% of the time, with 54% wanting flexible or alternative schedules.’ For businesses too, it has benefits. Firstly, for morale. If you’re giving employees what they say they want, their morale should logically go up. It also means that they are saving money on office space, which can often be extortionate, and that you can hire the best talent from anywhere, removing the constraint of having to find candidates within commuting distance from their offices. Finally, employees supposedly work better from home. One tech giant recently shared employee research that revealed that ‘remote workers are highly engaged, more likely to consider their workplaces as innovative, happier about their job prospects and less stressed than their more traditional, office-bound colleagues.’ Who was that tech giant? IBM.
The question this raises is why IBM would say something was right for other companies, but when they are looking down the barrel of 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue, decide that, actually, bringing staff together means they will work faster, be more productive, and more creative. Maybe they were joking. Maybe they sell technology which enables telecommuting even though they don’t really believe in it. Who knows. But IBM embraced remote work for decades, long before it became the ‘in thing’. In 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 global employees worked from home. As a result, the company reduced its office space by 78 million square feet and saved roughly $100 million in the US annually. So are these cost savings no longer worthwhile? Do the negatives of remote working outweigh the positives? And does this mean remote working is on the out?
The truth is that remote working is really just a good way for smaller and growing companies to save on costs. None of the most creative major tech companies encourage employees to work from home, for the very simple reason that it discourages innovation and collaboration, regardless of how much fancy new software helps it to happen. Google, Facebook, and Apple are all famous for creating a workplace culture designed to keep employees in the office as long as possible, offering freebies such as a laundry service and food. Facebook even offers workers a $10,000 bonus if they live near headquarters. They don’t do this for fun, they do it because it works, and IBM has clearly realized this. There are a number of supposed cons to working remotely. When former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer terminated the company’s popular telecommuting policy, she told workers in the memo that, ‘Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo, and that starts with physically being together.’ While Mayer made a number of mistakes during her tenure, removing remote working was not one of them.
Every company will have had a different experience of remote working. For some, it works, for others, it doesn’t. But ultimately, innovation needs collaboration, and this is simply not possible to the same degree if you’re not physically together. Remote working may be something millennials want, who wouldn’t want to work in their underwear, but this doesn’t mean that it is in the best interests of the organization. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University specializing in HR strategy, argues that ‘[Remote work] was a great strategy for the 90s and the 80s, but not for 2015.’ It seems companies are slowly starting to realize this, and we will likely see more move away from it in the coming years.