IBM’s 30-Day Ultimatum, Apple’s New Spaceship Campus, and the Future of Work


This week, IBM became the latest giant to toss its telecommuting policy into the scrap heap. First reported by the Wall Street Journal on May 18, 2017, the tech giant has decided to undo its decades-old telecommuting policy and start requiring its work force to show up to a physical office location.

40% of IBM’s 386,000 employees worldwide have had some sort of flexible or remote working setup since 2009. Gains to IBM as a result of this policy? A reduction in office space by 78 million square feet — the equivalent of 1,625 football fields — and a savings of approximately US$100 million annually.

IBM teleworkers – again, up to 40% of its total work force – have 30 days to either relocate to one of the company’s regional locations, or leave the company. The company has not revealed how many of its teleworkers will be affected.

This shouldn’t be surprising news. In March of this year, IBM decided to “co-locate” the 2,600 employees in its marketing department – many of whom worked remotely – to one of six locations: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Raleigh. What this meant was threefold:

  1. Telecommuting employees would be required to work from one of those six offices,
  2. Employees who worked in a physical office not on that list would be required to relocate, and
  3. Many of the employees in the first two categories would choose to leave the company.

The March “co-location” efforts have not been popular with IBM employees, with one referring to the new policy as a “massacre” and many other employees speculating that co-location efforts are layoffs in disguise.

Tech in its purest form has always been more results-driven and innovation-driven than process-driven. When we think of tech, we think of hoodied wunderkinds who can change the world with a laptop and an internet connection. They didn’t fret too much over the particulars of the process, such as dress code or workspace location. They couldn’t care less whether or not you wore pantyhose as long as you could sling out the code. Results, not process.

But, all innovations face the existential crisis of whether to maintain their cultural, artistic, or intellectual integrity, or succumb to mainstream corporate demands. In other words, whether or not to sell out. Apple Computer – a company whose roots can be traced back to a Los Altos garage – is nearing completion on its $5 billion Silicon Valley headquarters, a structure that the late Steve Jobs once referred to, in an address to the Cupertino City Council, as “the greatest office building in the world.”

Shaped like a homescreen button and located on the former Hewlett-Packard campus grounds, the headquarters will be home to approximately 14,000 Apple employees. Some have been working there since April; the remainder of the 14,000 will arrive over the next six months as construction is completed over the summer. According to Wired, the Apple mothership will be accessible via several four-story glass doors (because there’s nothing more extra than four-story glass doors) located around the perimeter of the ring. The Apple headquarters will also feature apricot orchards (because apple orchards would just be too on-the-nose), two miles of running paths, a 100,000 square foot fitness center, a visitor center, and, of course, its own Apple Store.

When we think of Silicon Valley, we think of disruption – of turning old-world methods on their heads and finding new ways to tackle traditional problems. Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn have transformed how we maintain and grow our personal and professional networks. Lyft and other ride-share apps have made it possible to go carless, even in cities like Los Angeles.

So why are innovation stalwarts like Apple doubling down on physical office space? Millennials, who have been in the work force for approximately a decade, as well as the “digital natives” of Generation Z (born 1994 on up), prioritize flexibility over even perks such as healthcare. While Generation Z may be more open to a traditional office culture – in a 2016 global study of over 4,000 respondents, 41% of Generation Z members preferred a corporate office space over 28% in 2014 – they also embrace communication via social media, working abroad, and real-time feedback. And the industry that captures Generation Z’s interest the most – technology.

As for millennials, recent studies show that as many as 88% desire work-life balance in a job, and 78% prioritize flexible work schedules.

As companies scale upward, perhaps the best way to approach telecommuting is a golden mean – offer the virtual office option to employees who wish to take advantage of it, but invest in a modernized central workplace to foster in-person, real-time collaboration and communication between team members. If there’s one thing that our next generation of professionals does not want, it’s IBM-style ultimatums.

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