Q: Is the recent news of IBM calling remote workers back to the office a trend or an anomaly in the future of how and where people work?

Clark Covington, Public Relations, Workzone

A: As early as the 1970s, several workforce trends were discernible in American organizations: use of teams to accomplish everything, increased employee participation in problem solving and decisionmaking, and alternative arrangements for working.

Driven by technology, the desire for increased employee motivation, engagement and productivity, and the conservation of office space and cost drove alternative arrangements, sometimes called flex arrangements. These have included such practices as telecommuting, flextime, working from anywhere, reduced hours, unlimited time off, and others. With all of these arrangements, employees take responsibility to achieve their goals while working outside the standard 8-5 routine at an office.

Senior managers decide if these arrangements make sense given the nature of their businesses. Businesses that require employees to work face-to-face and at specific times are less prone to use these alternative arrangements. Think of the clinical work done at hospitals and medical clinics. Conversely, many managerial, professional and administrative jobs are good fits for some forms of alternative arrangements.

The latest move at IBM and similar decisions at Best Buy and Yahoo represent more specific business decisions than changes to the long-term trend toward alternative work arrangements. Senior managers will always make spot decisions designed to maximize customer outcomes and profits. Sometimes these decisions call for alternative work arrangements for the workforce when they make sense and at other times they use a more standard work routine.

However, the push to find more productive modes of working that also increase employee health, engagement and satisfaction will continue as a trend throughout the world. So, the trends mentioned above will continue unabated with businesses sometimes moving ahead to new practices and sometimes reverting to older, more established patterns.


Michael Sheppeck is an associate professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.