Get back to work: is remote working in decline?

With companies telling staff to return to the office, is this the end of remote working?

IBM has told thousands of its US workers to abandon their home offices and return to the office, or leave the company. Is the remote working trend starting to reverse?

For decades, IBM has been a leader in telecommuting, but the tech giant took a step back in June 2017 when it ordered its many remote workers to report to the office or find a new job.

The company has not revealed how many people will be affected, but in 2009, 40 per cent of its 386,000-strong workforce worked from home. 

Is IBM’s decision an isolated incident or a turning point in the decline of remote work? 

Is this the end of remote work?

Paul Broadfoot, entrepreneurial strategist and author of Xcelerate, says IBM’s decision comes after a record run of 20 quarters of negative growth, “an incredible decline”.

IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty had to change the way the company operates. A new global strategy focusing on the three pillars of cloud, data and engagement is delivering growth, says Broadfoot, but not fast enough. “Their overall legacy businesses are declining faster than their newer areas are growing.”

The new strategy demands high levels of creativity and collaboration that are sparked by face-to-face communication. Sound familiar? It was the same reason given to Yahoo! staff when then-CEO Marissa Mayer ended the company’s work-from-home policy in 2013.

“To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side,” she told staff.

Ending telecommuting did not save Yahoo! – in June 2017 its internet assets were sold to Verizon Communications and the remaining business renamed Altaba.

The argument that co-location fosters collaboration does have merit, says Peter Wilson FCPA, chairman of the Australian Human Resource Institute.

“We are drawn to communities,” he says. “We are all psychologically wired to want to belong, to be part of something.”

Remote working is good for concentration and focus, but it is also very solitary. 

“Most of us benefit from positive interactions with other human beings in work, particularly where you require the cooperation of others to get things done,” adds Wilson.

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The benefits of remote working

Remote working’s supporters say productivity is higher without long commutes, noisy colleagues or unnecessary meetings.

A Stanford University study of call centre workers found that productivity rose 13.5 per cent among employees working from home. 

The study’s author, Professor Nicholas Bloom, said the remote workers “quit at half the rate of people in the office” and “reported much higher job satisfaction”.

IBM’s decision may improve collaboration and innovation, but at the cost of reduced productivity and lost talent.

“People are concerned that the IBM move is a case of redundancies in disguise,” says Broadfoot. “It’s not ideal to give someone such short notice and say, ‘Right, back in the front office in 30 days,’ when you’re nowhere near an office, or they’ve got 90 days to apply for another job. That’s not going to get them in a collaborative and creative mindset when they return to the office.”

He forecasts a wave of resignations.

Australians are increasingly working remotely

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that in 2015, 3.5 million employees worked from home in their main job – about 30 per cent of our workforce.

Rory Condon FCPA is a partner at CondonTreasure, an accounting firm with five offices in regional Queensland that has employed remote workers “from day one”.

For Condon, offering part-time remote work is a valuable tool to retain talented staff, but his preference remains with office-based work. Employees enjoy the social interaction, he says, and face-to-face communication enables matters to be dealt with quickly and effectively.

“Everyone's inundated with e-mails and electronic communication,” he says. “We can get lost if we don’t keep up, or even step up, that face-to-face or telephone communication.”

While remote work is on the rise, most employees still spend time in a central office.

According to research by McCrindle, only 10 per cent of Australians spend 80 per cent or more of their time working remotely – and it doesn’t suit all roles and employees. 

“Most jobs require both interdependent work and independent work,” says Wilson, who says this favours a “blended” arrangement. 

Spending some time in the office satisfies the business’s need to foster collaboration, as well as employees’ desire for human contact. 

“One or two days from home gives people the ability to concentrate and be productive and have the autonomy they crave,” says Broadfoot.

He says location will matter less as technology improves.

We shouldn’t be asking if employees should have more autonomy or access to remote work – both are inevitable, says Broadfoot. Rather, we should ask “how can we use technology to make remote work better?”

Read next: Working from home: does it work?

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October 2021
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