Working from home could kill career advancement, says IBM CEO

Just like turning 40, eh Arvind?

IBM CEO, Arvind Krishna, isn't telling his employees that they have to return to the office, but he did warn that continuing to work remotely could mean being passed over for promotion or career advancement. 

Trotting out the same old Microsoft productivity paranoia arguments that we've become accustomed to since the COVID-19 pandemic redefined work, Krishna said in an interview this week that "we work better when we are together in person," and that managers need to be able to see the folks whose work they're directing every once in a while.

"It doesn't need to be every minute. You don't need to function under those old 'Everybody's under my eye' kind of rules, but at least sometimes," Krishna told Bloomberg, adding that IBM's return-to-office policy is one of encouragement, not requirement. 

"We encourage you to come in, we expect you to come in, we want you to come in," for three days a week, Krishna said. 

Krishna said this applies especially to managers, arguing they require face-to-face time with staff to properly do their jobs. Remote work is more viable for individual contributors, Krishna said, adding that "moving from there to another role is probably less likely because nobody's observing them in another context. It will be tougher. Not impossible, but probably a lot tougher."

The IBM boss earlier mulled replacing thousands of workers with artificial intelligence.

Joining the ranks of the working paranoid

Corporate leaders have been jockeying to get staff back to the office since early into the pandemic, and not everyone has been successful. 

Apple's attempts to get staff back to its expensive new headquarters in early 2022 met strong opposition from employees. The company scrapped the move, citing rising COVID cases, but as of March 2023 has reportedly ordered employees back to the office 3 days a week on pain of termination.

Krishna's statement that working in the office is optional but encouraged puts in him good company, with Amazon having mandated 3 days a week on site for its 300,000 corporate staff in February. Amazon CEO Andy Jassy's justification was similar to Krishna's, with the Bezos replacement saying "It's easier to learn, model, practice, and strengthen our culture when we're in the office together most of the time and surrounded by our colleagues." 

Jassy emphasized new employees, who he said need the culture injections that come with working on site, echoing Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff, who last year accused his newer employees of being less productive and blamed remote work. 

Don't you wish your employees were miserable efficient like me?

While Microsoft is not without blame for exacerbating tensions between remote employees and their bosses, the software giant said last year that its own research found a disconnect between workers and managers that needs to be addressed, and return-to-office mandates might not be the way to do it.

Microsoft urged companies to avoid practicing "productivity theater" and instead focus on listening to staff to better understand their remote work experiences and needs. 

That's similar to what industry leaders said at the Canalys Channels Forum last year - namely that focusing on the work done by in-office staff (cough - Benioff and Krishna - cough) could mean qualified, talented - but remote - staff may simply quit.

And while the debate over how productive remote employees are continues to rage, plenty of studies actually find that, contrary to statements from Benioff and Krishna, remote workers are more productive and focused - and can even feel a better connection to their company's culture. 

The Slack-backed Future Forum's October report of worker sentiment found that 29 percent of remote workers say they're more productive at home, and 53 percent feel they're better able to focus. 

"Remote and hybrid workers are more likely to feel connected to their direct manager and their company's values and equally or more likely to feel connected to their immediate teams as fully in-office workers are," Future Forum said in its report. 

Oddly enough, those same workers cite flexible remote work policies as the top factor in improving company culture since the pandemic. Sixty percent of executives, however, told Future Forum that their workforce planning policies are determined at the executive level with little to no direct input from underlings. 

In other words, executives that want their employees back in the office are making their decisions based on sentiments from other leaders without considering the feelings - or accurately gauging the performance - of line workers.

Combined with what the Future Forum said is a declining job satisfaction rate for executives In fact, individual contributors responding to the survey last year generally reported feeling that their work-life balance had improved, they were more satisfied at work and suffering from less stress and anxiety.

But let's not forget the period of time we're in right now - the tech industry is contracting hard and fast as it struggles to readjust to the post-pandemic economy. 

IBM Consulting, which ordered workers back to the office three days a week in October of last year, has been accused of trying to get employees to quit on their own to avoid layoffs. 

"Nobody wants to commute to an office and sit there for ten hours to justify managerial roles and sit in meetings all day," one IBM employee said on Fishbowl. Since then, IBM and its subsidiaries have conducted several waves of layoffs. ®

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