Technology is changing the world in the blink of an eye, and as much as we love having the latest iPhone that can do literally everything or the electronic personal assistant named Alexa in our living room, the rapid pace of innovation may actually be coming at the cost of access to the workforce for women and other groups.
Just as flexible work environments and the global marketplace are providing opportunities for women to make greater strides in juggling career, family, and active lifestyles, companies are rolling back telecommuting jobs in order to keep pace with innovation, a trend that could potentially slow or even impede this progress.
Let’s look at IBM as an example.
IBM is a company in the headlines because earlier this year it announced that it would “co-locate” its entire marketing department of 2,600 people—which was primarily made up of telecommuting workers—to six principal locations scattered throughout the United States. Each employee was assigned an office based on where his or her team was located, not on geographical proximity. Telecommuting employees or those working from an office not assigned to them had 30 days to decide whether to pick up and move house or start looking for a new job.
Many employees opted out because this would require uprooting entire families and, oftentimes, deep ties to rural or non-accessible communities.
The decision to co-locate the marketing department came on the heels of co-location projects in other IBM departments (like design, security, procurement, and IT), and reflects a global trend of calling remote workers back to the office, with companies like Best Buy, Yahoo, Bank of America, and Aetna also reeling in telecommuters over the course of the past couple of years.
The irony here is that years ago, IBM was a leader in the work-from-home revolution. They were test-driving home office technologies and installing them in the homes of employees in the 1980s… long before telecommuting became the universal trend that it is today. From 1995 to 2009, IBM saved more than $100 million by creating work-from-home positions and shrinking its real estate holdings, and is well known for creating innovative software and services for companies with employees that are not cubicle-bound.
So the decision by new Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Peluso to move the marketing department back to the office is an about-face for the company, one that is based on an “X Factor” that she says shoulder-to-shoulder co-working creates.
"There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder," she reportedly said. "Bringing people together creates its own X Factor.”
What is this X-Factor that she is referring to? My guess is: Innovation.
Most of the studies and data produced on telecommuting indicate that it is generally beneficial for employers and employees alike in terms of employee retention, happiness, and productivity. However, what this data does not reflect is the shift that is currently occurring in the global marketplace.
Companies are no longer as focused on productivity, but on innovation.
As a Quartz article on IBM succinctly stated: “The company is a ship that is changing direction, not one that merely needs more horsepower.”
With the enhancement of technologies and the automation of so many campaigns and tasks, teams are now required to respond quickly to real-time data and to innovate solutions on a dime that will keep them competitive with smaller, boutique companies.
Unfortunately, this seems to be an age-old case of technologies meant to simplify your life actually making it harder.
There is a reason why studies find that telecommuting employees are happier and more productive. It’s the same reason why 80-90% of people who don’t currently telecommute would like to: freedom.
Telecommuting provides opportunities for people who wouldn’t normally have access to the workforce due to disability, geographical location, or lifestyle choices to have a thriving career and make a contribution.
The migration back to the office particularly impacts women who wear multiple hats, serving as career women, homemakers, caretakers, and mothers. Telecommuting provides freedom for these women to spend time with their families, take care of aging parents, set their own work hours, and spend less “dead” time commuting.
It gives the woman who wants to have a career and a family access to the labor force that past generations did not have. It gives her the opportunity to continuing honing her skills and advancing her career when she may have otherwise been inclined to take a decade off to raise a family. It also gives her the ability to create a better quality of life for her family by not only contributing to the family’s income, but by living in a location that may have a lower cost of living.
In addition to women, the move also affects the recruitment of Millennials, who are known for seeking more work-life balance and freedom of movement in work situations. The creatives of this generation are not likely to trade their valuable skill set for a commute and a time clock … because they don’t have to.
So the migration back to the office begs the question: How will this affect workplace diversity? Will this mean that more and more people will be excluded from the workforce in the name of innovation? Will our offices go back to being made up of middle-to-retirement-aged white men?
While the jury is still out on this data, it is important to note that it seems female leadership does not show particular compassion for the exclusion of these groups from the workplace: both IBM and Yahoo boasted female CEOs when the decision to bring workers back to the office was made.
So if female leadership will not advocate for the needs of women, who will?
This is a case of female leadership conforming to a leadership style where the bottom line trumps everything. Where innovation is more important than the employees who innovate.
My question is: Why are companies ok to settle for an average of 2 hours of lost productivity per day and a workforce that is less happy, less productive, and with a higher turnover?
If innovation is the new standard, then why are some of the world’s foremost companies giving in to archaic workplace structures and not actually innovating new ways to make inclusive, accessible, and diverse work environments that promote organizational goals AND workforce happiness?
I would sacrifice the next iteration of the iPhone for that.
Mandy Sciacchitano is a Diet Freedom and Self Love Coach and Copyeditor for A Million Smart Women
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Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal