Earlier this year IBM rescinded its generous work from home policy. The company had been a leader in flexible and remote work arrangements, going back to the 80s, with more than 40% of its workforce in 2017 working remotely. The sudden reversal sent shockwaves through the tech industry and the HR space — why exactly would they change a policy that seemed to work for them for so long, and what would the IBM workplace culture look like in the wake of it?
But IBM isn’t the only organization rethinking flexible and remote work. Some small tech firms have been clawing back on remote work time, asking employees to spend the better part of their work hours in the office and not at home. Facebook offers a $10,000 bonus for moving closer to the office. What’s behind the trend to reverse a decade of expansion in remote work policies?
At IBM and in many other tech companies, remote work hasn’t been so much demonized as it has been cited as a road block in the way of innovation. Teams that work closely together in person can make unexpected leaps, and that, goes the prevailing wisdom, is how innovation happens. It’s the water cooler effect, where people come together in unplanned, often casual meetings can accidentally stumble across great ideas or solve each other’s problems. So although flexible and remote work policies have been proven to benefit workers and workplaces alike, reducing stress and allowing organizations to retain employees who might otherwise have needed to leave, it’s started to look a little old fashioned and counter productive. The calculus goes: you can have a happier team or a more productive team, which do you want more?
The trouble is that while there’s plenty of research to show that remote work can improve relationships at work, reducing stress and allowing greater flexibility, it’s a bit harder to pin down what the perfect conditions are for innovation. It happens in surprising places and at surprising times — and anyone in your organization is capable of innovation, not just your creative teams. Leaders in tech may argue today that an agile workplace is one that’s more innovative, we know from experience that style and pace of work isn’t a guarantee of good ideas or of having the infrastructure necessary to bring those ideas to fruition. You can’t manufacture the water cooler effect by designing the perfect office or fine-tuning your team just so.
At it’s most simple, innovation just means the introduction of something new. Institutionalizing innovation is contradiction in terms — the tendency of all organizations, small and large, is to settle into comfortable paths. Put differently, it’s not actually possible to make constant innovation a rule because that rule itself will thus be subject to being innovated out of existence.
Perhaps the biggest problem for remote and flexible work arrangements is that they are now so common. Like I said above, they’ve begun to look a little old fashioned. Maybe remote and flexible work is just “over,” as far as workplace trends go. But the data doesn’t lie, flexibility adds just as much to your organization as the water cooler effect, if not more.
Like so many workplace trends optimizing your workplace for innovation (if that’s even possible, beyond being more open to change), is just one part of a much more complex organism. Don’t get caught up in the idea, like IBM has, that it is the singular solution to all your company’s problems.