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Nickle LaMoreaux became IBM’s HR chief smack in the middle of a global pandemic.
After 20 years climbing the ranks at IBM, LaMoreaux was promoted to chief human resources officer in September. A few months in, she’s considering what the pandemic has taught her about the future of work. More specifically: Is the hybrid work model, with some people in the office and some people remote, sustainable?
When we spoke by phone in February, LaMoreaux was in IBM’s Armonk, New York, office, along with a select group of colleagues. Most of IBM’s staff was still working from home. (IBM has employees all over the world.)
“We believe in the hybrid work model,” LaMoreaux said. Certain work activities don’t need to happen in an office; others do. The challenging bit, LaMoreaux said, is striking the right balance. When IBM surveyed its employees in mid-2020, most said they wanted a hybrid environment, meaning they’d come into the office just a couple days a week.
That’s similar to what other research has found. The National Association for Business Economics found that only about one in 10 of the 97 employers they surveyed expect all their employees to go back to the office post-pandemic. A Slack survey of roughly 9,000 knowledge workers found that 72% would prefer a combination of remote and in-office work. Just 12% of respondents said they planned to go back to working in an office full-time.
With all this in mind, LaMoreaux has started “dissecting” work, trying to figure out exactly which tasks can be done remotely and which probably can’t. It comes down to three questions, she said: What is best done in the office? For whom? And how often?
IBM is deconstructing the workday
A bit of history: IBM was a leader in the remote-work movement. Then, in 2017, the company changed course and told those who were doing their jobs from home that they could either return to the office or find a job elsewhere.
LaMoreaux clarified that, at the time, some jobs that were completely remote were moved back to the office, and that less than 2% of IBM employees were affected. The decision was part of the company’s move to agile software development, LaMoreaux added. Cross-disciplinary teams were working together on specific problems, and IBM felt it was better for those teams to be colocated.
Now, LaMoreaux is looking at flexible work in the context of those three questions (what is best done in the office, for whom, and how often). Thinking this way requires shifting the focus from activities, she said, to outcomes. IBM needs to “break down work into the specific activities,” she said, “and determine the optimal place for those activities to [happen] based on the outcome that we’re driving.”
LaMoreaux explained how she does that using her favorite example: a team reviewing its sales process to spot inefficiencies.
Few IBM employees will need to be in the office full-time
Before the pandemic, LaMoreaux said, these reviews were done in IBM’s conference rooms. Now they’re done virtually. LaMoreaux thinks a hybrid work model would likely yield the best outcome.
The first step involved in a review, she said, is going over relevant numbers. People can easily do that on their own. Next is a discussion about those numbers, which can happen on a videoconference. The final step is problem solving. This type of brainstorming, LaMoreaux said, may be “best done in person.”
Now that she’s been deconstructing work this way, LaMoreaux has realized that most IBM employees will need to come into the office “from time to time.” But very few will need to be in the office five days a week, she said.
This kind of flexibility will also help widen the pool of talent IBM has to choose from, which LaMoreaux is keenly aware of. Certain groups of workers, like caregivers, may not reasonably be able to come into an office five days a week. If IBM mandated that all employees come into the office five days a week, they’d likely be overlooking a chunk of the talent market.
IBM thinks in-person work sparks innovation
As much as IBM wants to provide flexibility, LaMoreaux thinks in-person dynamics can facilitate creativity and innovation. But it’s hard to say for sure whether people are more creative and innovative in an office than they are working remotely.
Apple reportedly designed its offices so that people would be more likely to bump into each other and have casual chats about new ideas. Still, some research suggests that remote teams are more creative than teams that are colocated. That’s largely because virtual collaboration is more inclusive of different voices and perspectives.
In the MIT Sloan Management Review, Leigh Thompson, a management professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, writes that it’s helpful that you can hear just one person at a time on video calls, in contrast to the cross-talk that happens during in-person meetings. Individuals, Thompson writes, tend to be more creative than groups anyway.
Ultimately, LaMoreaux is using the current crisis as an opportunity to “reimagine” work. She knows that IBM can’t return to the way things got done pre-pandemic. Flexibility, she said, can help IBM “meet the demands of the talent that we want to recruit and keep.”