May 25, 2017

An Open Letter to IBM’s Remote Workers: You Have Options


If I worked at IBM, I’d be giving my notice today.

Now, I’ve never actually worked for IBM, but I very well could have: A company I worked at in Silicon Valley called Tealeaf was acquired by IBM shortly after I left.

Last week, IBM forced its remote workers to make a choice between moving to an office or leaving the company. As a remote worker myself, I could have been one of the people faced with that decision. And I can’t help thinking: “What if?”

This is a Sliding Doors moment of pondering. Remember that old Gwyneth Paltrow movie? Her character’s love life and career hinge on whether or not she catches a train, and we, the audience, get to see both possibilities unfold.

In my case, the train I took led me to a job at Upwork, a company that believes in the value of remote work. Two years ago, I moved from California to Oregon. I knew the company was generally supportive of remote work, but after years of being tied to a company office, I was nervous when I told my manager I wanted to leave San Francisco. Though my company has a distributed team, I still felt an obligation in my own mind to “come into work.”

The company responded to my move wonderfully. Not only was I allowed to work remotely, but the company even threw me a surprise moving party! I was ecstatic. This spring marks my five-year anniversary at Upwork, which makes me a veteran by Silicon Valley standards. This is the longest I’ve ever stayed at a job. This spring also marks my second year of working remotely. I remain loyal for many reasons, but gratitude for the company’s trust in me to deliver – despite location independence – is a chief one.

Now, let’s imagine that I didn’t catch the train that led to Upwork and instead stayed on the IBM track. I likely would have still itched to leave the Bay Area, and IBM likely would have approved a move since it had been allowing remote work for years. If that happened, I’d now have to decide between uprooting my life to come back to an office or leaving my job.

treeAre you an IBM remote worker who has to make this decision? I can tell you what my choice would be: I’d leave IBM. Forcing a skilled professional to move is demoralizing and downright insulting. If I were you, dear remote worker at IBM who I very well could have been, I would read between the lines of this ultimatum and uncover the company’s real message: “We don’t think you’ve been a valuable enough contributor where you are.” Or “We don’t trust you.” Or worse, “We could not care less if we keep you at the company.”

That last one is big. My company cares about me and wants to keep me. It views the impact I have as valuable enough to allow me to live my life the way I want to live it. I’m here to tell you that there are other companies that care and are wise enough about the future of work to not only continue to allow you to work remotely, but also to build entire teams around remote work. For example, my own team is spread across the world: I’m in Portland and a few people are in the Bay Area, but we also have teammates – including freelancers – spread across places like Denmark, Australia, Kenya, and Canada.

More and more companies have been taking steps to empower remote workers, and the smartest business leaders have been wise to the value of remote work for a while now. I think Tom Preston-Werner, founder of GitHub, said it best: “Companies that aren’t distributed can’t possibly say that they hire the best people. The world is a big place.”

I really believe IBM’s remote work policy reversal is an attempt to do the opposite of building its teams up. Instead, IBM is surreptitiously downsizing in hopes of helping the company’s turnaround prospects. However, as Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel writes, IBM will be unsuccessful in this endeavor because good profits require good talent. The best people have the most job options, and they are unlikely to stay at a company where management doesn’t empower them to live the life they want where they want.

So keep that in mind. If you’re a remote worker at IBM, don’t let this news make you feel defeated. Board a different train. As a tech pro in a tight talent market, you have options.

Shoshana Deutschkron is V.P. of communications for Upwork.

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Shoshana Deutschkron is the V.P. of communications for Upwork, the largest freelance website. As a remote worker and digital nomad, she enjoys practicing and espousing innovative work approaches shaping the teams of tomorrow.