How IBM stabbed their workforce – and themselves – in the back

In light of IBM’s decision to repeal their famous ‘work-from-home’ policy, I hope you’ll forgive me for asking the question: have they completely lost the plot? According to Geoffrey James of Inc., they may well have. He writes, ‘You’d think that IBM’s executives would realise that the company’s unparalleled record of financial growth and innovation might somehow be connected with the fact that, at last count, about 40 percent of its employees work from home. But you’d think wrong’.

And he’s right. A massive proportion of employees at IBM, and incidentally the proportion responsible for keeping their software ticking, prefer to work from home. They write and test code, a task that doesn’t benefit from ambient chatter. They’re happy working this way, and the company flourishes as a result. But with one fell swoop, showing a colossal disregard for employee care, IBM has put both their workforce satisfaction and consequently their business’s productivity in serious jeopardy.

Should large corporates be factoring something as ethereal as happiness into their business decisions? Probably, since keeping employees happy delivers tangible benefits. Jonha Revensencio, writing for Fast Company, cites an economic study by the University of Warwick which shows employee happiness leads to a 12% increase in productivity. And these benefits are circular and exponential in nature. Being truly satisfied at work makes you more productive and more accurate, which conversely makes you happier at home. You then return to work refreshed and perform better, then you go home even more satisfied and, well, you get the idea.

On the flip side, the unhappy employee gets the reverse: the same study told that those who are dissatisfied are 10% less productive. They’re more likely to be stressed and subsequently less effective, as well as more likely to suffer from mental health issues. This is not to mention the cost to the business as a whole, investing time to put out the fires that arise within a team of miserable employees.
Employee happiness
So, is there any justification for this change of heart? Well, yes, but it’s tepid at best. IBM said, “In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working. We are bringing small, self-directed, agile teams in these fields together.” As Mr James, quite ruthlessly, puts it, ‘There is so much that’s stupid about that statement that I hardly know where to start.’ But even if IBM’s statement were just a clumsy representation of practical, worthwhile aims, and its meaninglessness was merely coincidental, the downside still far outweighs any possible gain.

Quite apart from the question of whether or not IBM’s workforce do their work better from home, there’s also the fact they will begrudge their employers for taking away the sanctuary that lets them be effective and makes them happy. The company will likely survive the coming storm, but at the very best they’ll do so with a host of disgruntled workers, compromised productivity, and a few bemused onlookers.