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Don't get too comfortable in your home office

If you’re reading this from the comfort of your home office, you may want to thank IBM for helping to make that possible.

The technology giant that gave us the floppy disk, automated teller machine and Watson supercomputer has also been a trailblazer in terms of allowing employees to work remotely. IBM began allowing some of its employees to work at home during the Reagan era, and by 2009 40 percent of its 386,000 staffers worldwide were no longer tethered to a traditional office. Tens of thousands more worked remotely at least occasionally, according to a company report.

Now, Big Blue -- which helped launch the work-from-home movement to slash its real estate costs and retain talent -- has become the latest corporate behemoth to call some of its troops back to the office. Honeywell, Yahoo, Best Buy, Hewlett-Packard and Bank of America have made similar moves over the last several years. Like IBM, they cited the need to improve teamwork, idea-sharing, speed and agility.

Needless to say, not all their employees are thrilled. Some IBMers have reportedly polished up their resumes and begun looking for new jobs.

As more and more companies in the U.S. have adopted work-from-home policies, employees have grown to expect a measure of control over when and where they work -- and they appear to be getting it. Last year, 43 percent of employees worked remotely in some capacity, meaning they spent at least some of their time working in a different location than their co-workers, according to a Gallup report. That was up from 39 percent in 2012.

IBM, however, is among a handful of big employers that are reversing course. Last month, the company informed its U.S. marketing team of about 2,600 people that working remotely on a full-time basis would no longer be an option, according to media accounts.

Ian Colley, an IBM spokesman, confirmed that marketing employees have been asked to work out of six new digital marketing facilities located in Austin, Texas; San Francisco; New York City; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Atlanta; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

As a result, employees who worked remotely -- whether from home or an office other than the one to which they are now assigned -- will need to commute, move, change offices within the same city or find another job. Colley declined to say how many staffers are impacted by the policy change or when it takes effect.

IBM is helping to pay moving expenses for workers who opt to relocate. For employees who need to move because of the new policy but can’t for some reason, IBM will help them find other jobs internally, according to Colley.

Most IBM marketing employees already work out of an office (rather than from home) and live within commuting distance of one of the six new facilities, he said. 

IBM remains “committed to work-life balance” and still allows members of “co-located” teams to sometimes work at home, Colley said. Those teams include not only marketing but also chief information officers, the Watson division and certain software development groups.

“As marketing shifts to digital marketing, the need to work in an agile way becomes more apparent,” said Colley, explaining the reason for the new marketing-department policy.

“Marketing is no longer a ‘waterfall’ type work process, where work is handed from one person to another. Modern marketing requires that people on a team be able to iterate programs in real-time based on live feedback. This requires them to collaborate much more closely,” he added.

IBM appears to be bucking a trend. On the whole, companies are offering workers greater flexibility in terms of when and where they work, and not just because it helps with their recruiting efforts. Studies have shown that employee engagement and productivity often improve as a result.

In 2016, 40 percent of large companies allowed employees to work at home at least some of the time on a regular basis, up from 33 percent in 2012, according to a study by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.

Many companies allow working from home because it holds down their office-rental costs and the “low- or no-value-added time” workers spend commuting, particularly in cities with heavy rush-hour traffic, explained Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, whose corporate sponsors include IBM.

“A lot of times people think of [working from home] as an accommodation for working parents,” but that’s not necessarily the case, he explained. “There are organizational benefits to it,” added Harrington.

There may also be organizational costs in terms of teamwork, innovation and corporate culture, experts said.

“You start to get an erosion of corporate culture” when you have workers spread far and wide, said Tom Gimbel, chief executive officer of staff and recruiting firm LaSalle Network in Chicago.

The same can be said for the culture of colleges that specialize in online programs, Gimbel added. “You don’t see many people wearing a college sweatshirt for the University of Phoenix,” he noted.

For employees, there may be some drawbacks to working from home from a career-growth perspective, Gimbel said. Less face-time with higher ups could be a liability.

“Your opportunities for promotion are less if you’re not in the office interacting with senior management,” he said.

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