Arvind Krishna has a message for the 2,60,000 employees of International Business Machines Corp.: Remote work can be hazardous to your career.
The CEO of IBM, whose hybrid-cloud computing business has benefited from the rise of remote work, said he’s not forcing any staffers to come into the office just yet, but those who don’t would be hard-pressed to get promoted, especially into managerial roles.
“Being a people manager when you're remote is just tough because if you're managing people, you need to be able to see them once in a while,” he said in an interview on Monday in New York. “It doesn't need to be every minute. You don't need to function under those old ‘Everybody's under my eye’ kind of rules, but at least sometimes.”
Krishna’s comments add to the growing debate over the merits of remote versus in-person work, with some CEOs arguing that workers — particularly younger staff — need to be on site more often than not for learning and mentorship opportunities, while other experts point to research showing that workers are happier and even more productive when they have the opportunity to work from home.
Office-based staff, though, spend 25 per cent more time in career-development activities than their remote counterparts, according to data from economists who track work-from-home trends.
Return to office policy
“It seems to me that we work better when we are together in person,” said Krishna, who described the company’s return-to-office policy as “we encourage you to come in, we expect you to come in, we want you to come in.” Three days a week is the number they encourage, he said.
Among US employees who can work from home, nearly half have hybrid arrangements, according to data from a team of economists who have tracked the topic since the pandemic began. Just one in five are fully remote, with the rest in the office full time.
Working from home is most common in the technology and professional services sectors that IBM competes in, the data also show. But with layoffs rising and job openings declining, some workers are concerned that working from home could affect their job security.
While about 80% of IBM’s employees work from home at least some of the time, Krishna said remote arrangements are best suited for specific “individual contributor” roles like customer service or software programmers.
“In the short term you probably can be equally productive, but your career does suffer,” he said. “Moving from there to another role is probably less likely because nobody's observing them in another context. It will be tougher. Not impossible, but probably a lot tougher. ”
Krishna, who became CEO right after the pandemic hit in April 2020, said people make a choice to work remotely, but it need not be “a forever choice — it could be a choice based on convenience or circumstance.”
Remote workers, he said, don’t learn how to do things like deal with a difficult client, or how to make trade-offs when designing a new product. “I don't understand how to do all that remotely,” he said.
IBM’s CEO has worked to reorient the century-old company around more profitable services like hybrid-cloud computing, where customers run their own data centers in some combination with public cloud providers such as Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp.
The company announced job cuts earlier this year, which may amount to about 5,000 workers once completed. Still, Krishna said IBM has added to its workforce overall, bringing on about 7,000 people in the first quarter.