AT IBM, “Co-Location” Means “Get Your Butt Into the Office”


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories

Seattle Municipal Archives | Flickr

Offices are old hat. Distributed teams and remote work are the wave of the future. Right? Certainly, the numbers have been moving in that direction. Today, big companies seek to hire the best talent wherever it might live, while small firms skip the “rent an office” step and spend the cash on team gatherings and retreats. Employees opt for flexible schedules over painful commutes. And everyone ends up more productive.

But every trend has a counter-trend. IBM, once a distributed-workforce pioneer, is moving in the other direction (Sarah Kessler in Quartz). In the latest phase of a wave of “co-location” efforts, thousands of IBM marketing employees have been told to stop working from home and report for duty at one of six central offices.

IBM has had to tighten its belt in recent years with three rounds of layoffs, and some employees suspect the back-to-the-office campaign aims to further cut the payroll by driving some workers to quit. But Kessler also argues that the move back to the office is more likely a way of prioritizing creativity over raw productivity. Working from home may improve efficiency, but studies also show it can hamper teamwork, water-cooler serendipity, and the speed of innovation.

Which ultimately matters more: the collective inspiration that face-to-face communication enables, or the individual talent remote work lets firms harness? For IBM, and for other companies betting on the office revival, much will depend on how that comparison plays out.

The Soul of A New Platform

The video of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with one of his company’s drivers last month caused such a stir because it cut to the heart of the paradoxes that plague today’s platform companies (John Herrman in The New York Times). Uber drivers are not quite employees, yet they’re something more than “users.” When the driver complained that Uber’s low prices were pushing him to bankruptcy, Kalanick told him he was ducking responsibility for his own problems.

That’s ironic, since Uber’s whole model is built on not taking responsibility for as much of its business as a more traditional taxi outfit. In this, it resembles Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and every other successful platform builder today: Its model maximize its own opportunity while offloading risk to others. That’s brilliant and effective, but it leaves a wide trail of disgruntled third parties who shoulder the losses and the problems that the platform operator shrugs off.

Herrman remains impressed by the platform builders’ success at transitioning their businesses from “transaction enablers” to “participation gatekeepers.” Their strategy of “seeking total control even as they abdicate responsibility” seems to work pretty well. The question is whether the pain that their model casts off as exhaust will ever build up to an intolerable level — one that society seeks to address with new regulation.

Uber Stands By Its Man

Meanwhile, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick — under fire for a parade of troubles at the company beyond his videoed argument with that driver — isn’t going anywhere, at least for now. Despite high-level departures, gender-discrimination and sex-harassment scandals, and a rule-breaking culture, the Uber board is standing behind Kalanick (Blaise Zerega in Venturebeat). Yesterday it offered the press a defense led by board member Arianna Huffington, emphasizing the importance of a plan to bring in a strong number two as COO to help the company make a fresh start.

That was the idea when president Jeff Jones was brought on from Target last year — but Jones announced his departure earlier this week. Still, Uber has a new HR leader, Liane Hornsey, and a new head of diversity, Bernard Coleman III. Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder is leading an investigation into the company’s practices with a report due by late April. So we should know within a few months whether all this is enough to bring real change to Uber — without also jettisoning the guy at the top.

Google Glass Isn’t Dead — It’s Taken a Factory Job

Google Glass was a pioneering augmented-reality product that transformed a pair of glasses into a virtual display. It took a PR beating because it made users look geeky, and some felt that it violated social norms and privacy expectations. Google ultimately withdrew it from the consumer market.

But it’s still around: As NPR’s Tasnim Shamma reports, it’s finding a second life on factory floors at firms like AGCO, which builds giant tractors in Minnesota. There, the device’s scanning technology and look-up abilities speed workers’ production times. Glass is also finding new uses in industries like healthcare and energy, and at companies like General Electric and Boeing. This mirrors the early days of the tablet: Before the consumer hit that was the iPad, tablets were used mainly in factories and logistics companies like UPS.

The Google Glass saga is one example of how wrong the old “if you build it, they will come” trope was. In truth, building something is never enough on its own. You also have to keep trying different ways of matching your product to the world’s needs. One try is rarely enough.

Leave a Reply