IBM Signals End of Telecommuting Craze
Remote workers are strong proof that talking face to face is the best communication technology.
Remember the time Marissa Mayer banned telecommuting at Yahoo and started a media firestorm? Some thought she’d flipped her lid. Others said she’d made a grave mistake that would kill morale. Well, she hadn’t and it didn’t. That was one of the few things she did right in her ill-fated attempt to turn around the hapless internet portal.
While the former Googler didn’t intend to start a trend, she did. HP followed suit a few months later. Then came Best Buy, Bank of America, Aetna and others.
Last week, IBM gave thousands of virtual workers an ultimatum: either show up in the office, or go work somewhere else. Considering that Big Blue pioneered the “anytime, anywhere workforce” decades ago, that sort of closes the books on what has turned out to be yet another overhyped management fad.
Years ago, telecommuting was all the rage. Many predicted that, in the not-too-distant future, just about everyone would work remotely. Turns out, while working alone can boost productivity for some, the isolation can also have a chilling effect on collaboration and innovation. It’s sort of a mixed bag.
With decision-making becoming more real-time, data-centric and collaborative every day, it’s easy to see that a distributed workforce can slow the wheels of progress. It’s not at all surprising that nearly every company that’s put a stop to working remotely has been in a turnaround situation when team performance is critical.
That’s why Apple spent billions to build Apple Park -- its new spaceship-like headquarters with 175 acres of parkland and a 2.8 million square-foot main building that can house more than 12,000 employees. It’s all about collaboration and innovation. You’d think the tech giant would know something about that sort of thing.
The notion of overhyped management trends goes far beyond telecommuting. Every year or so the media goes bananas over a new fad. Enterprising opportunists then write books and start lucrative consultancies. There are always companies, big and small, that take the bait. Most end up regretting it, especially those who go for it hook, line and sinker.
Back when I was a young up-and-comer, the big management trends were matrix management, core competency, management by objective, organizational development, six sigma and strategic planning. The hot books were The One Minute Manager, Guerilla Marketing, Crossing the Chasm and Good to Great.
Granted, there was some benefit to most of those concepts. It was the hype that caused executives and business leaders to go overboard.
One of the best examples of that was outsourcing pioneered by Peter Drucker, the father of modern management. The problem came when outsourcing turned into offshoring, and ended up exporting jobs and importing cheap labor. The result was the near extinction of America’s manufacturing sector.
Today, we live in the golden age of overhyped fads: company culture, personal branding, content marketing, cause marketing, growth hacking, emotional intelligence, employee engagement, crowd funding, positive thinking, productivity, time management and, of course, everything Steve Jobs. There are countless books like The Lean Startup, Strengths Finder and Start With Why.
As in the past, there is some value to most of those concepts, but again, overdoing it can do far more harm than good. The best recent example I can think of is the self-management craze. For a while, everyone was starting to question whether companies even needed bosses or titles anymore. It turns out that flatter organizational structures are indeed beneficial, but only to a point. As usual, some went overboard.
A book called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux popularized the controversial concept of teal or nonhierarchical, peer-to-peer organizational structures. Holacracy took it a step further. But Tony Hsieh’s move to take Zappos in that direction has been an unmitigated disaster. Twitter cofounder Ev Williams dropped Holacracy at Medium, which is currently trying to reinvent itself and its business model.
In the early days of the company, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin toyed with the notion of a completely flat organization without bosses. They finally came to their senses and realized that, while it might work for some companies of limited size, it simply wasn’t very practical or scalable for a growth-oriented company. Kudos to them.
Look, I’ve been around a long time, long enough to see dozens if not hundreds of management fads come and go. The problem is when otherwise smart people stop thinking for themselves and start listening to the hype. They follow the crowd because all those people can’t be wrong. On the contrary, they can, and usually are.
You know how there’s supposed to be so much wisdom in crowds? Nope: It’s just another fad. There’s no wisdom in crowds, just massive groupthink and herd mentality. You can’t beat the irony. As I say in my book, Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Leaders lead. Followers follow. You can’t do both. And that’s no hype.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.