September 21, 2023


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IBM CEO says career growth is more difficult for remote workers

4 min read
IBM CEO says career growth is more difficult for remote workers

Yeah, it’s always better when we’re together, so croons Jack Johnson in every retail store, along with CEOs across America’s nationwide collection of empty offices. Latest to join the Greek chorus is IBM CEO Arvind Krishna, who recently claimed in a Bloomberg interview on Monday that working from home was not the best for everyone’s careers. And until A.I. takes the job of filling a desk, Krishna is looking to have his workers come in on a hybrid basis. Not “under those old ‘Everybody’s under my eye’ kind of rules,” he said, but at least sometimes.

“In the short term you probably can be equally productive, but your career does suffer,” Krishna said of working only remotely, pointing out that working from home is better for roles centering on individual contributions. “Moving from there to another role is probably less likely because nobody’s observing them in another context,” he adds. “It will be tougher. Not impossible, but probably a lot tougher.” Even if he thinks working from home is bad for your career trajectory, the head of the tech giant isn’t forcing anyone back to headquarters, as Bloomberg points out that 80% of IBM employees are at least partially working remotely. 

Krishna is far from the only CEO who recently came to the defense of in-person or hybrid plans. Coming off less strong than some staunch advocates of a return to office like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon or Twitter’s Elon Musk, Krishna has landed in the camp of those like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, not forcing employees back full-time but warning them of the potential consequences of staying only remote. Currently, IBM is just encouraging workers to come in three days a week.

But as they return to the office, staff might be in for a bit of a surprise when it comes to their new coworkers. Regarding the other hot-topic future-of-work discussion, Krishna is looking less back in time on what has been successful and more to new innovations. Embracing A.I.’s potential impact, he recently said that he intends to issue a hiring freeze for roles that can be done by robots instead. Specifically looking at back-office roles, he said to Bloomberg that, “I could easily see 30% of that getting replaced by A.I. and automation over a five-year period,” resulting in about 7,800 jobs cut.

IBM clarified in a statement to Fortune that there’s no blanket hiring pause at the company, and that it’s instead “being deliberate and thoughtful in our hiring with a focus on revenue-generating roles,” and being “very selective” about hiring for jobs that aren’t client- or technology-focused. The company is currently “actively hiring” for thousands of roles, it added.

Before they’re managing software systems, or finding themselves out of a job, managers might find it difficult to work remotely. It’s harder to be a boss when not in person, Krishna asserts, and while that doesn’t mean managers need to have their team always under their watchful eye, it can be helpful to see them at least some of the time. “It seems to me that we work better when we are together in person,” he said, adding that “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.”

His comments follow a new debate regarding the difference between a job and a career, echoing that of Jefferies CEO Rich Handler, who noted in an @WallStreetConfessions Instagram post last year that the difference between having a job and a career could be up to where you do your work.

“If you want a job, stay remote all the time and be efficient in a very limited way,” Handler writes. “If you want a career, engage with the rest of us in the office and use WFH only when flexibility is essential, mental health calls, and life balance needs help.” He added in a comment to Fortune that workers in the office get pulled into “a lot of interesting ‘real time’ situations.”

Hearing such advice from their bosses, younger employees have started to go in more for mentorship, greater productivity, and career opportunities. But it’s hard to have any of those things if no one is really coming in. Until then, executives will issue mandates, try to coax workers in, or hope that robots will take over and do the jobs instead (fingers crossed no revolution there).


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