KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Some Employers Are Rethinking Telework, Citing A Need For Better Collaboration

Jul 11, 2017
Originally published on July 11, 2017 10:25 am

The speed of digital technology has allowed workers to be mobile and flexible, and more employers continue to embrace remote work policies.

But it has also created demand for continuous updates and real-time collaboration. And that change has driven some companies — including IBM, Best Buy and Yahoo — to recall some of their remote workforces back into the office.

In the 1970s, IBM was one of the pioneers of telework, and over time, 20 percent of its employees worked remotely. Last year, it decided to recall some remote-work employees, a move that seemed to go against decades of policies aimed at supporting telework.

Diane Gherson, senior vice president of human resources for IBM, says that is not the case. The shift in work policy affects about 2 percent of its 380,000 workers, she says, and reflects changing workplace demands.

Millennial employees say they want to work with and learn from their older peers, and IBM's own employee surveys showed those who worked remotely were less engaged or motivated.

But most importantly, Gherson says, there has been a shift in how work itself gets done: "This is a real tidal wave, and that is the need for continuous innovation."

Gherson says customers expect speedy fixes and updates. To achieve that, software developers started working together in rooms without walls, so they could talk through changes in real time.

IBM isn't alone; Reddit and Bank of America, among others, have also recalled some remote-work employees. Gherson says employers in many industries, not just in software, are seeing the same shift.

"It's bleeding into other forms of work — so you're seeing that in marketing, as an example, where you see campaigns that are continuously getting feedback from the market on an hourly basis," she says.

Robert Martin, a software consultant and early advocate of what is known as the agile work method, says collocation is a key part of collaboration.

"The collaborative nature of being agile means that people need to be close to each other, they need to be in the same room. Because we're making many rapid changes in sequence, we have to be able to communicate those changes quickly," he says.

Martin was among 17 software developers who, in 2001, created and signed a document called the Agile Manifesto. The simple premise was that building software needs to take into account the very nature of the product — incorporating and welcoming change at every stage.

"The word 'software' means, you know, flexible product," Martin says.

He and his fellow developers didn't think the manifesto would gain traction, but they posted it online and tens of thousands of engineers signed the document. Agile became a movement that other industries modeled.

Of course, not everyone thinks remote work hurts collaboration. In fact, overall, telework continues to increase. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 40 percent of employers allow employees to regularly work from home.

Jay Friedman, chief operating officer for the Goodway Group, a digital marketing firm, says working from home is important to his company; only a handful of its workers on any given day head into the office.

"We found that the talent was not necessarily all in Philadelphia, where headquarters is, or all in Dallas, where I am," he says.

Friedman says some things are challenging, like having to terminate an employee over video conference. But overall, he says, the company's setup actually improved communication and coordination.

"Being remote forced us to document more — so document decisions, document learning, training, etc. — and that actually reduced the amount of time and back-and-forth," keeping everyone on the same page and on task, Friedman says.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, working from home may sound ideal, right? You don't have to get up as early. You don't have to get dressed up, no stressful commute. And it can be great for employers as well. But as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, some companies are finding it hard to beat face-to-face collaboration.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: In the 1970s, IBM was on the forefront of telework. And over time, 20 percent of the company's employees worked primarily from home. But last year, the company started recalling about 2 percent of its employees back into the office.

Diane Gherson is senior vice president of human resources for IBM. She says the shift in work policy reflects changing workplace demands. One is generational - millennials wanted to work with and learn from their older peers.

DIANE GHERSON: The other thing that we have found is that people who work at home are actually less engaged.

NOGUCHI: Meaning they were less connected or loyal. Finally, and most importantly, she says, there's been a shift in how work itself gets done.

GHERSON: This is a real tidal wave, and that is the need for continuous innovation.

NOGUCHI: Gherson says customers expect speedy fixes and updates. To achieve that, software developers started working together in rooms without walls, so they could talk through changes in real time. IBM isn't alone. Yahoo, Reddit and Bank of America have also recalled some remote-work employees. Gherson says employers in many industries, not just in software, are seeing the same shift.

GHERSON: It's bleeding into other forms of work. So you're seeing that in marketing, as an example, where you see campaigns that are continuously getting feedback from the market on an hourly basis.

NOGUCHI: Robert Martin is a software consultant and early advocate of what is known as the agile work method.

ROBERT MARTIN: The collaborative nature of being agile means that people need to be close to each other. They need to be in the same room. Because we're making many rapid changes in sequence, we have to be able to communicate those changes quickly.

NOGUCHI: Martin was among 17 software developers who, in 2001, created and signed a document called the Agile Manifesto. The simple premise was that building software needs to take into account the very nature of the product, incorporating and welcoming change at every stage.

ROBERT MARTIN: The word software means, you know, flexible product. The two words together - right - flexible product.

NOGUCHI: Martin and his fellow developers thought the manifesto would go nowhere, but they posted it online and tens of thousands of engineers signed the document. Agile became a movement that other industries modeled. Of course, not everyone thinks remote work hurts collaboration. In fact, overall, telework continues to increase.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 40 percent of employers allow employees to regularly work from home. Jay Friedman is chief operating officer for the Goodway Group, a digital marketing firm that operates virtually.

JAY FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I mean, out of nearly 400 people, 395ish, let's say, of them, are truly remote. We found that the talent was not necessarily all in Philadelphia, where headquarters is, or all in Dallas, where I am.

NOGUCHI: Friedman says the company's setup actually improved communication and coordination.

FRIEDMAN: Being remote forced us to document more - so document decisions, document learning, training, et cetera. And that actually reduced the amount of time and back-and-forth.

NOGUCHI: It keeps everyone on the same page, he says, and on task. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "QUICKPIG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.