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2009 IBM: Teleworking will save the WORLD! 2017 IBM: Get back to the office or else

Big Blue has changed its tune, past corporate strategy docs reveal

By Paul Kunert, 13 Feb 2017

Remote working might be a dirty word among senior IBMers these days but it wasn't always so: teleworking, Big Blue once claimed, would help heal a global economy suffering aftershocks of the banking meltdown, and it might even play a part in planetary salvation.

As El Reg exclusively revealed last week, IBM is following the lead of Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who clamped down on remote working early in her fateful reign. Similarly, IBM wants more bums on seats in locations of its choosing. The squeeze is happening right across the chart, our sources told us, both in the US and Europe.

In the case of the US, IBM will, we were told, centralise teams in six "strategic" offices. IBM staff that telework, operate out of a smaller district office or work remotely from their teams have two options – and 30 days to decide: move elsewhere in the country (potentially to the other side of it) or quit. Moving and living allowances will be paid but only up to $2,000 (as yet unconfirmed).

IBM has remained silent on the matter and it isn't hard to see why. In 2009, IBM's own workforce of 386,000 were the guinea pigs in a case study to demonstrate how businesses could cut back on both real estate and their carbon footprint if they untethered staff from their office desks and let them run free.

"The global economic crisis and resulting budget shortfalls have added to the urgency of reducing costs in both the public and private sector. Real estate management is a prime target of opportunity for cost savings that can be achieved with robust telework programme," wrote the paper's author Janet Caldow, of IBM's institute for electronic government.

Some 40 per cent of IBM's employees didn't have a "traditional office" and "many tens of thousands more" worked away from their workplace for "at least for some of the time", the case study claimed.

Changing work practices in this way had allowed IBM over the 14 years to 2009 to reduce office space by 78 million square feet and flog 58 million square feet for $1.9bn. Income from sub-leasing exceeded $1bn.

This 'mobility programme' saved five million gallons of staff fuel and avoided 450,000 tons of CO2 emissions in 2007, in the US alone, the case study added.

Business owners needed to only concentrate on the massive opportunities generated by teleworking, the report urged, particularly for an employer as large as the US government.

'Successful telework is directly correlated with a higher job satisfaction, lower absenteeism and turnover costs' - IBM, 2009

"If only a small percentage of the 1.8 million US Federal employees were equipped to perform their jobs outside the office, cost savings in real estate, related capital assets, and utilities could number in the tens of billions. And that's only the beginning. Other measurable benefits include continuity of operations during disasters, alleviation of traffic congestion, reductions in CO2 emissions and energy consumption, and remaining competitive in a global labour market that value work/life flexibility," Caldow's report added.

Teleworking had other rich benefits: in a national event such as a "pandemic influenza outbreak or a biological terrorist attack", those plucky teleworkers "can maintain continuity-of-operations from locations other than at the office".

How reassuring that during a zombie apocalypse, tech services will keep running. El Reg finds some comfort in this.

But the life-affirming benefits of teleworking didn't stop there, IBM previously told us. Those employers nurturing "robust telework programme" would gain the "competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining the top talent", the case study further claimed.

"Younger workers demand state-of-the-art technological capabilities in the performance of their jobs. They have grown up with technology and have been educated with it. This generation won't take a step backward to work in an outdated technology environment. And many will not relocate in order to accept a job. Successful telework is directly correlated with a higher job satisfaction, lower absenteeism and turnover costs."

Elsewhere in IBM's marketing dungeon, a little written treasure from 2007 also extolled the virtues of home working. A framework, called "The House of Carbon" [PDF], invited organisations to design an "integrated programme of action" to reduce their carbon footprint. Part of this strategy included home working as a way to "establish and implement effective green HR policies".

Businesses continue to mobilise their workforce and IBM is still supplying technology to do help them do just that. Other self-penned IBM studies – rather handily – talked up the extensive use of tech [PDF] to aid collaboration, balance work/ life demands and access data for people on the move.

Staff note the irony of the embarrassing about-turn in IBM's internal workings. The trend toward teleworking, at other organisations at least, isn't going away: around 60 million Americans were forecast to work remotely in 2016, according to Forrester. This was up 103 per cent since 2005. In the UK, an employee who works 26 weeks for an organisation is legally entitled to request flexible working.

Shoulder to shoulder

In a video sent to to her troops last week – also covered by El Reg – IBM's marketing chief Michelle Peluso explained some of the thinking. She said it was "time for us to start bringing our teams together, more shoulder to shoulder".

Peluso confirmed she was aware that turning their lives upside down will be "hard" for teleworkers at IBM, but she was convinced IBM had reached a "place where we're excited about the path forward". Affected staff we spoke to don't share that excitement.

IBM wavering commitment to teleworking emerged some years back when it started to cut back on subsidies for home broadband, but even so, staff are angry at the office order and its implementation. And they don't buy the rationale.

"This is a calculated move to get rid of people and if anyone thinks it isn't then the medical marijuana they are smoking is good stuff," an employee told The Reg.

Regrouping the workforce will cut expenses, and analysts had expected IBM to trim operating costs given that its revenue guidance seems to rely on aggressive growth in the second half of the year.

In a research note last week, Bernstein analyst Anthony Sacconaghi questioned if IBM's vital statistics indicated the business was "really turning" its fortunes.

"Our contention is that IBM's financial results and guidance suggest that the company is still very much in the throes of a turnaround, with success uncertain."

It's been four long years since IBM's revenues expanded, and in the last three years operating profit has dropped from $22bn to $14bn. It has repeatedly missed earning-per-share guidance.

IBM is trying to spin up sales of new world tech – cloud, AI, mobility – but in doing so has seemingly taken a step back into 20th century working practices. ®

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