Does Remote Work Hinder Innovation?
Quick decision-making and innovation require team
members to work in the same physical space.
There was a time when many of us believed work could be done well from anywhere. The rise of the
Internet, e-mail and work-sharing platforms made it possible.
In fact, IBM, as an early adopter of
telework, forever changed the business
landscape by investing in tools that per-mitted full-time remote opportunities.
The distributed work design meant that
each employee added value as projects
were passed efficiently from one stage to
the next. An important benefit was diversity: Fewer women dropped out of the
workforce as they were better able to juggle child care pickups. And more employees could move to locations away from the
office with lower costs of living.
The downside? Over-reliance on tele-conferences, slower decision-making and
With the urgent need for speed, innovation and responsiveness to the end-user in
the digital era, companies are now experiencing a demand for collaboration at an
unprecedented scale. In response, they are
choosing to use the agile work method,
in which face-to-face communication
enhances continuous iteration.
IBM is one such company. Over the last
few years, we have moved away from full-
time telecommuting for many roles. We
recently asked about 5,000 North Amer-
ican employees who were working from
home—in development, design, market-
ing and product management, as well as
recruiting—to join their colleagues in labs
and offices. The vast majority have opted
to do so. In fact, less than 20 percent of our
employees now work from home in North
America. (The teams in our global offices
have traditionally worked together onsite.)
We’ve embraced agile onsite work for
everything from software development to
the C-suite. We have supported this deci-
sion by making a significant investment in
tools, training some 160,000 employees in
agile and design thinking, and modernized
workspaces to align with how digital work
actually gets done. Employees are coming
together to co-create with colleagues, cli-
ents and universities, crossing traditional
functional lines to achieve as much as a
30 percent quicker time to market on key
projects. We’ve also reduced hiring time
in recruitment to 45 days from 85 days,
while doubling the satisfaction of hiring
Working this way is encouraging trust
and experimentation, not to mention the
learning that happens as a result of chance
encounters between employees around the
office. It’s helping to eliminate duplication of
effort and reduce decision-making time. For
example, the marketing function has ben-
efited from a real-time refinement of its tac-
tics, resulting from minute-by-minute ana-
lytics and immediate in-person feedback.
With new employees entering our work-
force, co-location provides a better learn-
ing environment. Internal studies show
that teams sharing the same space are more
engaged than those working remotely.
IBM remains firmly committed to the
practices that are so important to recruiting
and retaining a contemporary and diverse
workforce, such as permitting flexible hours
and allowing remote work to accommodate
nonroutine home and family responsibili-
ties. The need for flexibility is here to stay,
and we have the tools to make it seamless.
Has the era of remote work ended?
Only for some jobs. After all, for those in
many professions, such as nurses and fire-
fighters, it was never suitable. We’re simply
seeing more work shift into this category,
especially in environments of uncertainty
and volatility, where speed and innovation
count more than process efficiency.
Diane Gherson is chief human resource
officer at IBM in Armonk, N. Y.