I was surprised recently to see a headline saying that IBM was recalling its remote telecommuters back to the office to inspire more employee investment, engagement in projects, and to generate more collaboration within teams. I was surprised for the most part because this approach was just recently employed by Yahoo prior to it disintegrating and the pieces being acquired by other companies. The companies are vastly different, Yahoo was founded in 1994 while IBM’s origins can be traced by to the 1880’s, but this approach to trying to recommit to innovation and collaboration through co-location is eerily familiar.
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IBM has been reinventing itself to adjust to the times since the early days when it was still known as Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). Thomas J. Watson Sr. took over as president of the company in 1914 when profits had stagnated and the young company appeared to be floundering. Among a lot of other changes, he introduced a new slogan, “THINK,” during a board meeting that had turned into a staring contest. When asked what he meant by that, he said, “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet – we get paid for working with our heads.” That new mantra, combined with a new mindset, launched the company to double its revenues within the first four years that Watson was president. For the next hundred years, the company stayed on the trajectory Watson had set it on, and we ended up with some amazing inventions including (just to name a few):
The Hard Disk Drive
The DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory)
The UPC Barcode (Used everywhere to track goods sold in stores)
Magnetic Stripe Cards
The PC (Personal Computer)
These golden years were followed by the company offering some very progressive employee-centric programs that were among the first of their kind such as leadership development programs, group life insurance, paid vacations, and training for disabled workers. Contemporaries hadn’t even started thinking about some of these types of programs yet, and job-seekers packed with young talent flocked to the company. The company was also one of the first to offer telecommuting positions that captured the attention of younger generations of workers, and the company continued to stay ahead of competitors in both products and employee satisfaction.
In recent years, though, the pace of new inventions and products has slowed. While the company has had some bright spots within the last decade including its Watson system and its Blue Gene Project that was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the Blue Gene Project was disbanded in 2014, and the company has experienced several consecutive years of revenue decline. It appears as if management is attempting to course correct by bringing everyone back into the office in a move designed to foster collaboration and “group-think” that will hopefully inspire fresh ideas. However, this also means that IBM is continuing its tradition of going against the grain in its efforts to reignite the workforce in a move that appears almost designed to drive younger workers to look elsewhere for that alternative office setting, and the results of that may become more apparent in the next decade as other companies continue to move toward a polar opposite goal. Keep in mind those companies, including Google, have done plenty of research that supports the direction they’re headed in that doesn’t even include co-location in the top five list of attributes impacting team performance. That leaves us with a question: Will current employees feel demoralized and head toward the exit, and will potential younger employees decide they’ll take their talents elsewhere, or will IBM go back to its roots and THINK?
Laura is a Manager with YHB and serves on the Risk Advisory Services Team. Laura focuses on assisting organizations in a variety of industries with IT-related audit and consulting services.