IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty
IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty spoke yeserday at the IBM PartnerWorld Leadership Conference in Las Vegas. PHOTO: IBM

Is IBM trying to reverse 19 consecutive quarters of declining revenue through layoffs disguised as relocations and a tough new ban against remote working? 

That's the upshot of multiple news reports and increased social media chatter about deep problems at Big Blue.

According to a series of news reports from the UK publication The Register, Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM has already instituted a regressive policy that effectively ends remote working.

The Register, citing a confidential internal video, reports IBM is pulling the plug on its remote workers in the US.

Under the new policy, remote employees can quit or work at one of IBM’s six strategic centers in Austin, San Francisco, Atlanta, New York City, Cambridge, Mass. or Raleigh, N.C.

The news comes amid rumblings that IBM is on the verge of "mass" layoffs — even as IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty publicly pledged to hire about 25,000 US workers and spend $1 billion on training over the next four years.

Rometty didn't mention IBM "was also firing workers and sending many of the jobs overseas," according to a Bloomberg report.

IBM Marketers Get the News

At first — at least in terms of The Register’s chronicle of events — it appeared the orders were just for the marketing staff. According to The Register, IBM CMO Michelle Peluso used a confidential video message to inform her US marketing troops they must work at "a smaller set of locations" if they want to continue with the company.

But then, according to follow up reporting by The Register a few days later, this trend began last year when remote workers at IBM's Software and Systems unit "were told they would have to move and work at one of a handful of city offices, or find a new job."

... And Apparently Everyone Else at IBM

This consolidation effort will be extended to all of IBM’s operations over the next six months, The Register said.

IBM has told its workers the personnel policies will improve productivity, teamwork and morale — although it's hard to see how the latter will hold true for remote workers, who have 30 days to decide to move or leave their jobs.

IBM has not responded to multiple requests for comment from CMSWire.

However, IBM spokesman Clint Roswell confirmed some of the repots in an interview with Triangle Business Journal in Raleigh/Durham, N.C.

Roswell told the paper the policy of bringing remote marketing workers back into the office had already been happening at Research Triangle Park there. "Particularly dealing with the new demands of digital marketing, this is an evolution of the way things are working," he told the paper. "We find collaborative agile working … much more conducive to ideas."

IBM: Rethinking the Digital Workplace

Oh the irony.

Or perhaps better put, oh the shock. Certainly IBM's affected employees must be stunned — but even more so the companies that have viewed IBM as a thought leader in this area.

For while the remote workplace has its limitations, it has been companies such as IBM that have convinced other companies that the benefits of remote working and digital collaboration more than made up for the loss of in person interaction.

IBM has published a number of studies (PDF) on the merits of collaboration (PDF) and remote workers (PDF). Hat tip, again, to The Register for digging these out.

To say nothing of the fact that IBM has made its own software contributions to this space, some of them quite ground-breaking.

About 10 or so years ago, as one example, IBM began incorporating group video and Voice over IP (VoIP) into its IBM Collaboration Solutions, then known as IBM Lotus. This was about a year or two before Microsoft made similar moves and long before Microsoft acquired Skype.

Since then IBM has rolled out a new generation of collaboration and social collaboration products.

In fact, later this month IBM is holding its Connect 2017 event in San Francisco. IBM describes Connect as the leading workplace technology conference. The digital workplace, enterprise collaboration and enterprise content management are among the tracks.

The End of An Era?

Before we go much further, though, it is important to point out what exactly has been confirmed — namely, that the marketing operations are being summoned back to the six strategic centers. It is not certain that all of its workforce will be moving back to IBM's desks.

It is also worth noting that much of IBM’s US workforce is located in and around these six cities, Charles King, principal of Pund-IT told CMSWire.

"I would imagine that people who are telecommuting are doing so from their homes but don’t live that far away from these cities. I would guess it is a relative few that live several hours away from these cities."

But even all that said, it does seem likely that IBM has decided in its case at least, a remote workforce supplemented with digital collaboration technologies does not meet its needs, at least for its marketing operations.

Does that mean the digital workforce movement is a flash in the pan?

No, King says.

"These strategies are different for every company. Dell, for example, has had a remote working policy for a long time and it regularly reports on the energy savings it has accrued as a result."

Changing Workplace Strategies

Indeed, the thought leadership behind the changing nature of the workforce is as strong as ever. Around the same time The Register was reporting on IBM's changes, Accenture released a white paper [PDF] called the Workforce Marketplace.

It starts with this: "Driven by a surge of on-demand labor platforms and online work management solutions, legacy models and hierarchies are being dissolved and replaced with talent marketplaces. This resulting on-demand enterprise will be key to the rapid innovation and organizational changes that companies need to transform themselves into truly digital businesses."

But this is IBM we are talking about. Will its move to take its workforce back to 1986 be catching elsewhere?

Possibly, Jason Henham, consulting manager with Raffa, a Washington DC-based professional services firm, told CMSWire.

"IBM has said that the move is to improve productivity, teamwork and morale. So, if other companies join IBM in believing that productivity, teamwork and morale are mostly a function of employees being in the same physical place, then we could see more policies like this."

"Unfortunately, there are many examples of highly productive and high morale remote workplaces, so the policy trend would be misguided," he said.

Or not.

"As The Register was happy to point, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's infamous decision to end teleworking did not result in that company becoming demonstratively more competitive or effective," King said.