IBM has called some remote workers back to the office. This is no small decision, and it wasn’t taken lightly. Approximately 20% of its US employees were remote.
Ed Lovely, VP of IBM transformation tells The Wall Street Journal that “Togetherness breeds production.” Lovely goes on to state “We found that the most productive time was when people sit together.”
I spoke with Carrie Altieri, VP of Communications at IBM, who elaborates on Lovely’s statement. “IBM took many factors into consideration before calling about 5,000 remote workers in specific roles back into the office. For areas of the business where heavy collaboration and co-creation are key for time to market like development or marketing, we want those employees working together,” states Altieri. “This was a lengthy planning process for IBM that started with investments in agile training, digital tools and contemporizing around 7 million square feet of workspace. And we considered other elements like the workflow and maintaining flexibility”
And, IBM isn’t alone. Reddit, Aetna, Bank of America and Best Buy are among the giants calling for colocated teams.
Vishal Sikka, CEO of Infosys, one of the biggest Indian outsourcing firms backs up this claim when he tells The New York Times “The nature of work is changing. It is very local. And you often need whole teams locally,”
Why the change of heart?
After all, haven’t we been told for years that remote workforces:
- Enable companies to reach the largest possible talent pool by widening the field of available employees.
- Cost less due to both reduced overhead costs (remote workers don’t need office space in downtown urban locations) and due to lower salary demands outside of metro areas.
- Are more productive today than ever before thanks to Google Hangout, Slack and the like.
As it turns out, all of these benefits don’t hold a candle to the real productivity gains of colocation.
Why is colocation attractive?
Want to know why remote teams aren’t as productive as colocated teams? Want to know why organizations are returning to colocated models?
The answer is:
Effective teams are built by maximizing team productivity, not individual productivity. And, the single best form of communication that benefits team productivity is in-person communication.
Team Productivity vs Individual Productivity
Notice I said ‘team’ productivity is maximized by in-person communication. “Team” productivity is distinct from “individual” productivity. This is a KEY point that must be discussed.
For example, as I am writing this blog, I am doing so from home. It is quiet here, I am not distracted by the chatter of co-workers, and I’ve saved 20 minutes of my time by not having to commute. My individual productivity on this solo task is much higher than it would have been if I wrote the blog at my office desk.
However, tomorrow I have to attend a strategic planning meeting at Stride. There will be 5 people in the room - tech, product, stakeholders. We are debating a difficult problem that doesn’t yet have a solution. We will have heated debate. We will whiteboard, we will disagree. We will look at printouts, and at computer screens, and at Trello boards. For this meeting, the team productivity will be severely hampered if I were to dial in over Google Hangout.
Given how collaborative and iterative most tech teams are today, is remote work dead?
No. Companies are just realizing they swung the pendulum too far in the direction of remote work.
I think we all got a little too excited about the possibilities of remote teams. Tech leaders around the globe started dreaming of higher profit margins. Why pay a developer in New York City when you can get the same work from a developer offshore? Why pay for fancy standup desks when someone can work from home? Why limit yourself to employees that can work onsite when you can expand your talent pool to include the global workforce?
Remote work isn’t dead. It’s just swinging back towards a more realistic, smaller percentage of teams.
What About All of the Individuals That Literally Can Not Colocate Due to Physical or Other Logistical Reasons?
Every time I say that colocation is superior to remote, I get critics who accuse me of being insensitive to the needs of individuals who benefit from the ability to work remotely.
The problem with this claim is that these critics are falsely linking two pieces of data.
I am, in fact, a huge advocate of work/life balance. I am a huge advocate for gender diversity and equal opportunity. I am a working mother. I personally know what it’s like to need a flexible work schedule, because I worked during a full year of chemotherapy and cancer treatment, during which I was unable to put in a full 40 hours, and was unable to come into the office daily.
I believe that there are millions of individuals for whom remote work is more feasible than working at an office.
I believe that effective teams are built by maximizing team productivity, which is maximized by in-person communication.
So, When Is Remote Work Viable?
A remote employee or team is a viable option when complex, real time, group discussions of unsolved problems are not a mandatory ingredient in the success of the initiative.
How To Do Colocation Right
When your team’s need calls for colocation, there are steps you can take to maximize both productivity and team morale. Some of the most valuable things you can do are:
- Enable flexibility of work schedule - Colocation does not mean that every team member must arrive and depart at the exact same time. At Stride, some of my team members arrive at 8am, and others arrive at 10am. We have a shared sense of core hours that we all adhere to and are flexible outside of those.
- Agree on what types of activities require colocation - As I mentioned here, when I write I like to do so at home. Agree on solo activities that do not rely on complex debate and enable team members to do these activities remotely if they choose. Agree on which activities absolutely require colocation and schedule them to enable everyone to attend in person. One of my team members has to leave at 5pm to go pick up his daughter from school. So, our team knows that all colocation meetings end no later than 5pm.
- Create a workspace that is enjoyable and productive for the team - Invest in good whiteboards for conference rooms, comfy chairs, good lighting, quiet spaces to hold meetings, coffee, snacks. The more enjoyable your colocated workspace, the more time people will want to hang out in them.
Above all, talk to your team. Listen to what people want, and listen to what they can commit to. Colocation is on the rise, and I believe it’s here to stay.