IBM Orders Employees Back to the Barn

IBM has given certain divisional employees who work from home 30 days to join a team in an office location or find another job. Tens of thousands of employees will be affected.

This comes as a surprise because IBM has been a leader in the work-from-home movement. Its own researchers in fact have done studies showing the merits of remote work.

So why are they doing this? According to executives, the change in policy is designed to “improve collaboration and accelerate the pace of work.” It sounds as if they are intent on RECLAIMING CONVERSATION, which happens to be the title of an insightful book that I have been wanting to recommend for some time.

Sherry Turkle, is an MIT professor of the social studies of Science and technology, having spent over thirty years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology. She is not at all an enemy of all things digital, but she argues that we need to be aware of how our devices change us and what we stand to lose if we don’t exercise intelligent control over them. . . and ourselves.

One of the things we are losing, according to Turkle, is the power of spontaneous face- to-face conversation. Talking to each other, in the presence of each other, simply yields better results in the workplace than the bloodless exchange of texts and emails, which are frequently misinterpreted, misunderstood, or partially assimilated. Conference calls, where some parties are sure to be multitasking, answering email or otherwise engaged are no substitute. And Video calls and chat apps have not lived up to the original expectations.

The fact is that what we say changes with the medium we use to say it. We plow ahead with an email hoping to get a discussion started without benefit of the target’s facial expression, body language, vocal nuance or interruption—any of which might have given us notice that we weren’t being understood or that we were being boring, causing us to change course or shut up!

The recipient then has a chance to edit his response before he replies. Had the exchange taken place in real time it would have been quite different. The pace of work would certainly have been accelerated and possibly productive of creative innovation.

Of course, getting team members in the same building where they can make personal contact is only the first step in reclaiming conversation in the workplace. Turkle devotes some time to the subject of meetings. As well she might! I have no experience with business meetings. The only meetings I attended in my career as a teacher were faculty meetings of one sort or another. And those meetings took place before smart phones, laptop computers or ipads existed.

Nevertheless, I simply cannot imagine the colossal rudeness that is apparently considered normal in today’s workplace when it comes to meetings! I understand those in attendance do other work, answer email, text, play games, shop online, eat food and go to the bathroom—while someone attempts to make a presentation! Why any manager puts up with this is beyond me.

Poorly designed office space is another obstacle that stands in the way of bringing real conversation back into the workplace. Bouncing off each other in informal settings—in meetings without an agenda—can be very productive. But of course, spaces where employees encounter each other informally need to exist.

Yahoo brought its telecommuters back to the office in 2013. Bank of America Corp. and Aetna, Inc. have also recently decided to reduce telecommuting. And now Big Blue is doing the same. Sherry Turkle’s research suggests that there is sound reasoning behind these decisions.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age also addresses the effect technology is having on the family, friendship, romance, and education.

Its not too late to reclaim face-to-face conversation. It’s crucial that we do so, for it is  the essence of our humanity. Dr. Turkle provides many suggestions for businesses and individuals alike on how we can do it.

This interview with the author is really worth watching. It’s brief. Take a look!

One thought on “IBM Orders Employees Back to the Barn

  1. Last night my family went to the movies. Unbelievably, my husband and my son forgot their phones. I always forget my phone. We were phone free. It was great. Nothing bad happened. We didn’t miss any emergencies. We had a nice long conversation about the movie on the way home. Maybe we could learn to forget them more often.


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