Why Are Some Companies Turning Away From Remote Work?

why are some companies turning away from remote work

IBM discontinued its lenient work from home policy earlier this year. With more than 40% of its personnel working remotely in 2017, the company has long been a pioneer in flexible and remote work arrangements. The abrupt turnabout shocked the tech sector and the HR community. Why exactly would they alter a policy that had previously appeared to be working for them, and what would the IBM workplace culture look like as a result?

Why Are Some Companies Turning Away From Remote Work?

However, IBM is hardly the only company reconsidering remote and flexible employment. Small tech companies are pushing back against remote work time by requiring employees to spend the majority of their working hours at the office rather than at home. Facebook offers a bonus of $10,000 for relocating near the office. What is driving the trend to roll back remote work restrictions after a decade of expansion?

Remote labor hasn’t exactly been stigmatized at IBM or many other IT organizations, but it has been pointed out as a barrier to innovation. The conventional understanding holds that innovation develops when teams that collaborate closely in person can take unexpected turns. It’s known as the “water cooler effect,” where individuals who come together in impromptu, frequently informal encounters may unintentionally stumble onto brilliant ideas or resolve one another’s issues. Therefore, despite the fact that flexible and remote work policies have been shown to help both employees and workplaces by lowering stress and enabling businesses to keep people who may otherwise have needed to leave, they are beginning to appear a bit outdated and counter productive. The calculus goes: you can have a happier team or a more productive team, which do you want more?

You can't manufacture the water cooler effect by designing the perfect office or fine-tuning your team just so. Click To Tweet

The issue is that, despite a wealth of data demonstrating the positive effects of remote work on interpersonal connections, stress reduction, and flexibility, it can be challenging to identify the ideal environment for creativity. Anyone in your organization, not only your creative teams, is capable of innovation. It happens in unexpected places and at unexpected moments. Tech industry leaders may claim that an agile workplace is one that is more innovative, but we know from experience that these claims are unfounded. An agile workplace is not a guarantee of good ideas or of having the infrastructure required to implement such ideas. By creating the ideal workplace or assembling the ideal team, you cannot create the water cooler effect.

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.

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Megan Purdy

Former recruiter, HR pro and Workology editor. Comics, cheese and political economy.


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