Telecommuting or Not? Which is More Innovative and Collaborative?

Telecommuting: Good Or Bad?

IBM recently announced that they were going to begin to eliminate telecommuting. The announcement, if you ask me, sounded more like an ultimatum, mentioning that all IBMs people worldwide would need to consolidate into a small number of offices and that working from home would no longer be permitted.

It also sounded like employees who didn’t like the policy were free to leave IBM. That anyone who wants to continue to work at IBM will need to come into one of their centers wherever they are in the world. No exceptions.

It seemed to me very like the announcement made by Marissa Mayer at Yahoo when she eliminated telecommuting; however, even more radical, I know that there were some exceptions made at Yahoo; however, my sense is that the IBM policy will be stricter.

At the time of Yahoo’s announcement, the reason given was that they wanted their employees to come together and collaborate, and with collaboration comes more innovation.

If you’ve read my blog or listened to my podcast for a while, you’ll note that my stance is that the future of work will consist of working wherever you are, whenever you can, on whatever you are doing. Time and place will not matter since, with the right technology, you can collaborate and innovate from anywhere.

Contrast the IBM announcement with a recent announcement from Microsoft, who just bought free WeWork memberships for their employees. If you are unfamiliar with WeWork, they run co-working centers around the country (and a few co-living centers). One of the cool things about WeWork is that you get to spend time and interact with other startup founders in all sorts of interesting places.

You sign up with them on a subscription basis and get a spot in an interestingly designed open office space to work, shoulder to shoulder with other startup founders. For a little more, you can get a private office, but most people opt for the open space, so they can act and interact with others.

Let’s contrast these two approaches.

On the one hand, we have both Yahoo and IBM CEOs saying that to be more innovative, they need to be more collaborative and in the same physical space.  On the other hand, Microsoft is encouraging their employees to spread out into WeWork spaces, shoulder to shoulder with other tiny companies.

Which of these do you think is the more innovative approach?

Of course, I’d say the latter. You can’t be innovative if you come back to the same echo chamber every day with the same people on the same projects, day after day. There is much less chance of developing that interesting new day – that different way of doing things – if you stay in the same homogenous space day after day.

If you regularly insert yourself into brand new situations with brand new individuals and have brand new conversations about brand new things, brand new things will happen. Serendipity occurs.

If you really want the company to flourish, you don’t force everyone into the office. If you really want the company to be more innovative, you help your people be more innovative by setting a clear vision and then letting them work from wherever they are, on whatever they want to work on.

No matter where you are: local coffee shop, co-working space, airplane, or train, whenever and wherever we are in the world, we will be able to provide you with interesting work, productive projects and cool innovations that we’re not going to get if you force us to come into the office.

Does collaboration really suffer when people are not in the same physical space? Doesn’t technology take us past this now?

What do you think? Are Yahoo and IBM right in bringing everyone in? Or should you follow Microsoft’s vision and let your people go? Which is better for innovation and collaboration?