IBM Consulting is done playing around, orders immediate return to office

Executives told comply or say goodbye

IBM Consulting this week told its US-based executives and people managers that, effective immediately, they must work from a corporate office at least three days per week, or face the consequences.

John Granger, SVP of IBM Consulting, told staff in an email this is a company-wide policy that extends beyond the Consulting division. He issued a similar, if less emphatic, memo in 2022 that called for being in the workplace three days per week, "wherever possible," and exempted those designated as "work-at-home" employees from the office or client-site attendance.

The email sent this week, however, tells those affected that they should "separate from IBM" if they don't wish to comply.

Winning in the marketplace demands our collective focus [... which] includes face-to-face interaction

IBM Software issued a similar directive in September 2023, and at the time, we're told, the Consulting group expected to implement the policy at a later date. That day has now arrived.

Big Blue's antipathy toward remote work predates the workplace exodus precipitated by the COVID pandemic. Back in 2017, IBM tried to end telecommuting by telling workers they had to work from one of six strategic offices, a policy some employees saw as an attempt to drive older workers out.

An IBM employee who spoke with The Register, and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, described the enforced return-to-office policy as "attrition by design," noting that the IT giant would have to spend some money to relocate and promote lower-band (younger) employees but would save money overall by shedding more experienced, more expensive workers.

Our source also noted that Big Blue is ordering people back to the office at a time when the venerable employer is closing regional hubs.

"Winning in the marketplace demands our collective focus and alignment on innovation, speed, and execution," Granger's note states. "We believe alignment includes face-to-face interaction as it drives the engagement, productivity, and the culture we need to bring world-class client services and products to market."

Someone needs to look at the data

That belief about productivity may be misplaced. According to economic research published earlier this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, remote work has no significant effect on productivity.

"After controlling for pre-pandemic trends in industry productivity growth rates, we find little statistical relationship between telework and pandemic productivity performance," the study says.

"We conclude that the shift to remote work, on its own, is unlikely to be a major factor explaining differences across sectors in productivity performance. By extension, despite the important social and cultural effects of increased telework, the shift is unlikely to be a major factor explaining changes in aggregate productivity."

Part of the problem for managers is that many lack ways to assess the productivity of remote workers.

They also lack a way to assess office occupancy. According to our IBM source, Big Blue's team can tell when employees arrive by the time they swipe their badges through building security systems. But there's no badge swipe upon exit, so there's nothing to prevent workers from showing up and then departing shortly thereafter.

Be that as it may, IBM Consulting is moving ahead with its plan, requiring executives and people managers to "immediately begin working from a client location or an IBM office" at least three days each week, unless eligible for exceptions like medical conditions or military service.

Those who are currently not working from an office or client site must relocate by August 1 so that they can work on-prem, or to shift to a related role outside IBM Consulting for a position that's approved for remote work, or to simply leave the biz.

Granger's note, also shared here on social media, says executives and people managers who will be required to relocate will be informed of this by the end of January 2024, and will then have 30 days to decide if they are willing to make the move.

It's perhaps worth noting that insiders sometimes say IBM stands for I've Been Moved.

Asked to comment, an IBM spokesperson told The Register, "IBM is focused on providing a work environment that balances flexibility with the face to face interactions that make us more productive, innovative and better able to serve our clients. Consistent with that approach, we’re requiring executives and people managers in the United States to be in the office at least three days per week."

Those affected by the policy appear to be less enthusiastic. In a post to LinkedIn, Tony Moura, IBM Federal Garage Lead, said, "So, I'll drive to an office that's 30 minutes away, incur the cost for tolls which will equal $11.25 for the day, and lunch. Just to sit with no one that is on my team because they're all over the country to simply do what I'm doing right now." ®

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