Nickle LaMoreaux became the HR chief of technology multinational IBM in the midst of a pandemic.
After climbing the ladder within the company for 20 years, LaMoreaux was promoted to director of human resources at the beginning of September. A few months later, she reflects on what the pandemic has taught her about the future of work. And more specifically: Is the hybrid model where some people work in the office and some work remotely, sustainable?
When we spoke to LaMoreaux on the phone in February, she was at IBM’s headquarters in Armonk, New York, with a select group of colleagues. Most IBM employees still worked from home. The company has employees all over the world. “We believe in the hybrid working model,” said LaMoreaux. Certain tasks don’t have to be done in the office, others do. The challenge is to find the right balance. When IBM surveyed its employees in mid-2020, most said they wanted a hybrid environment. That means they want to spend a few days a week in the office.
This outcome is consistent with results from other studies. Only 10 out of 97 employers expect all their employees to return to their offices after the pandemic, according to research by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). And a survey of roughly 9,000 knowledge workers by Slack found that 72 percent prefer a combination of remote and office work. Only 12 percent of respondents said they will work full-time in the office after the pandemic.
Tech giants like Salesforce and Spotify have already announced that they are giving their staff the option to work remotely full-time. With this in mind, LaMoreaux has begun to “dissect” work to figure out which tasks can be performed remotely and which are unlikely to. According to her, this boils down to three questions: What is the best thing to do in the office? For whom? And how often?
IBM dissects the workday
Time for a bit of history: IBM was once a leader in the remote work movement. But in 2017, the company changed course and workers who work from home were told they could come to the office or look for a job elsewhere.
LaMoreaux provided clarification on this. Back then, jobs that were completely remote were brought back to the office. According to her, it affected less than 2 percent of IBM’s staff. The decision was part of IBM’s move toward agile software development, LaMoreaux added. Interdisciplinary teams worked on specific issues and the company thought it was better for this to be done in one location.
Now LaMoreaux is looking at flexible working in the context of the three questions she formulated.IBM needs to “divide work into specific activities,” she says. “We have to determine the optimal location for those activities, based on the result we are aiming for.”
Only a few IBM employees need to be in the office full-time
LaMoreaux explained this with her favorite example: a team that assesses the sales process to detect inefficiencies. Before the pandemic, these assessments were done in IBM’s conference rooms, she said. Now they happen virtually. LaMoreaux thinks that a hybrid model for this work is likely to yield the best results. The first step in the evaluation is going through relevant figures. People can easily do that themselves. The following is a discussion of those numbers, which can take place in a video meeting. The last step is troubleshooting. According to LaMoreaux, this brainstorming works best when you are physically together. Now that she has dissected the work this way, LaMoreaux realizes that most IBM employees need to come to the office from time to time. But few will have to be in the office five days a week, she said. This kind of flexibility will increase the pool of talent from which IBM must draw, LaMoreaux also realizes. Certain groups of employees, such as those responsible for caring for others, cannot reasonably be expected to show up at the office five days a week. If IBM were to mandate a five-day work week, the company would likely be missing out on some of the talent in the market. ‘Collaboration in one location is good for innovation’
As much as IBM would like to offer flexibility, LaMoreaux believes that the dynamics that arise during physical collaboration stimulate creativity and innovation. But it’s hard to say whether people are actually more creative and innovative in the office than they are remotely.
Apple seems to assume that physical collaboration is good for creative minds. The company has reportedly designed its offices so that people are more likely to bump into each other and talk informally about new ideas.
Still, there is research suggesting that teams working remotely are more creative than teams that are physically together. That would be mainly because virtual collaboration brings more different voices and perspectives. During video calls, it’s helpful to be able to hear only one person at a time, which is better than the noise or many voices often heard during a physical meeting, concluded Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the MIT Sloan Management Review. . Individuals, Thompson wrote, are already more creative than groups. Ultimately, LaMoreaux uses the current crisis as an opportunity to see work in a different way.“Flexibility,” she says, “can help IBM meet the demands of the talent we want to recruit and retain.”
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