IBM Reverses Telecommuting Policy

Publisher's Outlook

IBM Reverses Telecommuting Policy

By Rich Tehrani, Group Editor-in-Chief, TMC  |  May 05, 2017

It's mind-boggling. It's incredible. The biggest news in tech culture  is without question the reversal by IBM (News - Alert) regarding a telecommuting policy which will affect thousands of people. 

This is staggering because IBM was actually famous for letting – and even pushing – people to work from home. I've been at the company's headquarters and asked management about how they implemented telecommuting more than a decade ago, before the trend was common. They told me they have a set of technologies and management procedures to ensure it works well. In short, they were on the leading edge of collaboration – allowing them to do what most companies couldn't.

The last time we were in their Somers campus, they told us they believed the future of communications was unified communications avatars. We agreed;  we thought the technology had lots of promise. The general idea is our avatars get together in virtual rooms and have the meetings for us while we potentially lounge in our PJs and headsets while we rest our feet on the desk. We were obviously both very wrong.

Now, 5,500 IBM workers have to start coming to work or look for other jobs. Offices are located in Atlanta, Austin, Boston, New York, Raleigh, and San Francisco. Why? The general idea is you can perhaps be more productive outside the office, but there are many benefits to in-person collaboration that are tough to replicate from home.

A great article from Quartz has the details on how a few companies are reversing their trends toward telecommuting and calling people back into offices. It’s actually pretty shocking because it comes at a time when Slack is super successful, as are solutions like Basecamp and Trello, which allow groups to more easily manage tasks while Slack allows rapid-fire communications between people, groups, and subgroups.

What perhaps is most interesting is companies that embraced digital 3-D avatars all seemed to blossom and then see years of pain. For example, Nortel (News - Alert)'s Web.Alive really pioneered the tech for business, as I detailed frequently over the years. Then there is the company Second Life, which had a virtual world for consumers.

Nortel went through not one but two bankruptcies -– first, its own and now Avaya (News - Alert)'s. Second Life really went from being the hot tech company to obscurity. And IBM really got clobbered because it somehow missed cloud – even though you could say the company invented cloud 1.0 via its mainframes.

Obviously if these moves away from telecommuting become a big trend, it could be bad for a slew of collaboration vendors. So let me put in perspective what is happening.

Without a doubt the amount of communication – in many cases because of collaboration tools like Slack – has decreased productivity more than increased it. It is not unlike the challenge of adding more programmers to a project or more processors to a system. The communications between the processors or programmers becomes so great that performance doesn't increase, it gets worse.

This is why there is a "two pizza rule" relating to programmer productivity. Don't hire more programmers per project than you can feed with two pies.

In other words we are at a point where people can spend all day in tools like email, Trello and Slack – but not do any actual work strategizing, formulating, and determining how to stay ahead of the next business-changing curve.

There is no real solution. The problem is part art and science.

For smaller companies, it isn't as much of an issue. But as you grow, you need silos to ensure people don't choke on their interactions.

With the IBM news, expect large companies to reconsider their work-at-home policies. This could have drastic implications for the tech workforce not located in major U.S. cities.

TMC is working to raise awareness of such issues via its Tech Culture Awards program. It's dedicated to bringing this kind of important information to light and recognizing those companies that are effecting positive change in the workplace. We invite you to explore and participate in the TMC (News - AlertWorkplace Excellence Award program including the Tech Culture Award, the Tech Diversity Award, and the Social Responsibility Award. For more information, visit

Edited by Alicia Young