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Quartz, the cutting-edge NY digital news outlet, caught my eye last week (March 21, 2017) with this headline: “IBM, Remote Work Pioneer, Is Calling Thousands of Employees back to the office.”

This is a big change in direction for Big Blue. As recently as 2009, IBM had 40% of its hirelings working from home.

In fact, a number of companies have quietly begun shifting their home-based associates back to their corporate offices. This trend began to emerge publicly with Marissa Mayer’s startling decision to end Yahoo’s remote work policy back in 2013. Facebook now offers a $10,000 bonus to employees who live close to their office, and many other companies, like Best Buy and Reddit, no longer allow work from home. By September of this year IBM’s over 5,500 marketing people will have to work from physical offices in one of seven central locations: San Francisco, New York, Austin, Armonk, Boston, Atlanta, or Raleigh. Remote work will no longer be an option. (IBM already applies this policy to departments like security, procurement, most of IT, Watson, Watson Health, cloud development, and artificial intelligence.) Companies increasingly feel collaboration, creativity, and community are better fostered in a central office.

As an early successful adopter of the virtual office model with my first entrepreneurial firm, Corporate Rain, in the 1990s, I have always thought “What’s not to like?” After all, you save on office rent, office expenses, and commuting. And research indicates that remote workers are more productive and put in more hours than their office-based kindred. Also, for many people, it has been a partial solution to the work-life balance problem. According to the Gallop Poll, 25% of all American workers are presently laboring remotely.

That said, however, I am increasingly coming to a sense that for many companies, particularly large ones but also some of the small ones, there is a compelling rationale to centrally co-locate their office communities again.

For example, Best Buy reported that productivity had an average increase of 35% in departments that shifted to employees working whenever and wherever they wanted. However, there is a different set of benefits that ensue from central offices–and most of these benefits center around creativity and innovation.

Note John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, a specialist in HR strategy–again quoting from Quartz. Sullivan says, “It turns out the value of innovation is so strong it trumps any productivity gain….[Remote work] was a great strategy for the 90s but not for 2015.”

Certainly established companies are searching for how to solve the conundrum of creativity and how to come up with the next transformational eureka out of their behemothic institutions.

They long to infuse entrepreneurial passion and disruptive imagination into their titanic old-line firms. Their hidebound strategies aren’t working, therefore renewed office centralization is increasingly favored as a tool to help create a more generative, communal, cohesive business ambience–hopefully one more like the entrepreneurial laboratory.

Jeff Smith, IBM’s CIO, advocates agile management based around “squads”. He says “…leaders have to be with the squads and the squads have to be in a location.”

There increasingly is a valuation of what many call “the watercooler effect.” (Steve Jobs certainly appreciated the value of how chance meetings and accidental conversations can lead to disruptive ideas.) Note a recent study by Kevin Rickman of George Mason University and Michael Pratt of Boston College, who found that increased offsite work can have very negative effects on the office environment. Mason and Pratt state: “If the office is going to become a collection of employees not working together, it essentially becomes no different than a coffee shop (though perhaps with better internet and worse coffee.).” That may be a bit overstated, but perhaps reflective of the most au courant new HR thinking.

When asked what percentage of Google’s workers telecommute, Patric Pichette, then CFO said, “Our answer is: As few as possible.”

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young-disraeliBritish Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said, “There are three kinds of lies—lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  I’m coming to believe that nothing is more of a “damn lie” than government statistics on employment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the current unemployment rate is 7.5%, but the actual unemployment rate is at least 14.3%.  The reason for the disparity? The latter figure comes from the government statistic U-6 which takes into account what it calls “marginally attached workers.”  For example, in July only 92,000 of the 266,000 jobs created, per the Labor Department’s assay of employers, were full-time.  That’s 35%.  And, for the year, the figure is even more shocking.  According to website Zero Hedge, the whole year only 222,000 full-time jobs were created out of a total of 953,000.  And that, my friends, is 23%.  Even Ireland and Italy, which are in full-blown depressions, are doing better.

There are simply fewer traditional full-time jobs.  This is a new and permanent employment dystopia—a new paradigm, a new normal.  (I remember three years ago hearing Norm Brodsky, the wildly successful NY serial investor and entrepreneur, speaking to the Inc. Business Owners Council and predicting that the multitude of highly experienced executives laid off through 2010  would never—that’s never—work in corporate America again.  He was prescient.)   Yet, as horrifying as that may be, it can be advantageous for the agile business owner.

So here are some suggestions for creating an effective virtual workforce and for taking advantage of national employment conundrums to create ROI efficacy.  They’ve worked for me for a long time.  (18 years)

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  1. Know who you are personally.  It’s your company.  It is you. You cannot compellingly communicate values as corporate culture till you are there yourself.
  2. Establish your through-branded tonality (culture) in every collateral, every letter, every business card, every website, every blog, and every tweet.  If you are “cool and cutting     edge”, every word and design should shout cool and cutting edge.  If you are an established “white shoe” industry leader”, everything should reflect that.  Service-oriented and customized?  Likewise, through-brand it.
  3. Hire people who fit that tonality.  If everyone in the company comes out of the same philosophical and ethical gene pool, you start with an unspoken common ground that doesn’t need to be trained.  It just is.  Then allow them to fulfill their jobs with their own creativity, as much as possible.  This solves half the virtual management battle, as well.
  4. Hire older employees.  Don’t be frightened off by folks with big resumes that might make them seem overqualified.  Despite appearances, they often desperately need to work, at least part-time, for emotional as well as financial reasons.
  5. Utilize employees who can happily work flex-time and part-time.  It might keep your firm out of the clutches of Obamacare, among other things.
  6. Become a lifestyle company that compensates employees for a perhaps lower wage with freedom, autonomy, and flexibility.  Many folks value this even above career advancement.
  7. Give your virtual employees meaningful work.  Ask them what they like most to work on and accommodate them where possible.
  8. Simply trust your virtual employee.  Virtual management ain’t for control freaks and micromanagers.  Virtual employees do not lend themselves to a testosterone fueled “bossism.”  Develop measurement metrics and let folks go who don’t get it done.  (As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” ) But don’t micromanage.

Jul 07, 2008 - Mountainview, California, USA - MARISSA MAYER, VP of Search and User Experiences, Google is photographed on the Google campus in Mountainview, CA on July 7, 2008. From the high-tech scene, there has risen a new crop of accomplished female CResearch response from virtual employees is overwhelmingly positive.  They generally love the lifestyle of working at home.  (Note a nice summation of this research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in an HBR blog of July 24, 2013 titled “Working From Home:  A Work in Progress.”)  Likewise, you might want to check out The Virtual Manager by HR guru Kevin Sheridan.  It offers authoritative advice on virtual employment far beyond my intuitive, unsystematic suggestions.

This is not to say virtual employment is always the solution to employee efficiency.  Marissa Mayer of Yahoo has just ended virtual employment for her troubled firm and she may well be right.  When things are dire there is a value in change for change’s sake, if nothing else.  Drama bespeaks seriousness about change.

Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post last week, has said this about Amazon.  “We are stubborn in vision.  We are flexible in details.”  Maybe that’s the key to being a virtual employer, as much as anything else I’ve read.  Thanks, Jeff.

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