Has marketing become too agile for remote work?

Charlotte Thiry
March 31, 2017
⏱ 4 min. read

After years of working remotely, IBM’s marketing team is now called back to the office. The CMO wants them to have more impact, creativity and fun and, most importantly, believes that marketing has become too dynamic for telework.

Last February, IBM’s new Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso, announced that working from home was no longer an option: all 2600 employees of the marketing department would have to work together, shoulder to shoulder, in one of 6 IBM offices in the US. This decision came as a shock, as most marketers were asked to work from home only a few years ago.

marketing remote work desk
40% of IBM employees worked from home in 2009.

IBM is often referred to as the pioneer of the home office, as it started to facilitate remote work as early as the 1980s. In 1995 the company drastically reduced office costs by encouraging employees to work from home, resulting in 40% of home-based employees and savings over 100 million dollars by 2009 (data by Business Insider).

Chosing marketing innovation over productivity

In her announcement, Peluso explained that if IBM was going to keep up with Microsoft and the West Coast companies (read: Apple, Google & Facebook) there was only one recipe for success: great people with the right skills, the right tools, a mission and, most importantly, working together in an inspiring location.

“There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder. Bringing people together creates its own X Factor.”

A study at the University of Harvard showed that remote work raises productivity, whereas another study at the same university showed that scholars working in close physical proximity delivered more impactful papers. Bottom line: if you want people to do more work, let them work from home. If it’s great ideas you’re looking for, bring your teams together.

marketing team meeting
If it’s great ideas you’re looking for, bring your teams together.

And after 19 consecutive quarters of sales decline, great ideas is exactly what IBM needs: they need a complete revamp and have to invest in innovative ideas. Or, as John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University, puts it,  “it turns out the value of innovation is so strong that it trumps any productivity gain.”

Marketing has shifted to a dynamic driver of customer experience

Another reason for IBM’s co-location of the marketing department is the fundamentally changed nature of marketing. As my colleague Peter Desmyttere discussed in an earlier article about stress in marketing, marketers today are facing the challenges of the increasing pace, ever-changing face and growing complexity of the marketing industry.

Michelle Peluso chief marketing officer IBM
Michelle Peluso - Chief Marketing Officer @ IBM (Photo by TCV)

In a TCV interview about the rise of augmented marketing, Peluso explains that marketing is no longer a waterfall process where work is handed from one person to another but has become a more dynamic discipline.  

“Marketing has shifted from a thoughtful, functional discipline around creatively amplifying the company message to a much more dynamic, real-time, analytical — and creative — driver of client experience, revenue, and company performance. Expectations have never been higher for marketers, and the new seat they have at the table is an amazing opportunity for the best of them to grow and lead.”

The co-located marketing department will be adopting the Agile methodology,  “that means creating small empowered teams with the right skills, clear accountability, sprints, and a constant focus on prioritization. [...] Agile teams that have a strong mix of creative, process, digital, and data science skills”.  

She also talks about the close link between marketing and technology: “it’s fundamentally important to be insatiably curious about technology because the most successful marketers are as analytically rigorous as they are creative.” Although she definitely has a point there, I am pretty sure that you could still be an incredibly successful creative marketer without being a super precise analyst. As long as your job is the right fit for you, that is.

Is this the right move for IBM's marketing department?

Is co-locating the marketing department in 6 office locations the right decision for IBM? It might be. There is no doubt that IBM has to rethink their strategy and maybe even go back to a – yes, I dare say the word – startup mindset if they are going to compete with new tech companies and cloud-base services. Clearly, cutting office costs and raising the bar of productivity with telework just won’t cut it anymore.

marketing agile facebook offices
Facebook offices in Palo Alto, California (Photo by Officesnapshots.com)

Instead, they will have to follow the example of most Silicon Valley tech companies in creating a company culture where proximity, teamwork and unplanned meetings around the water cooler encourage creativity. Because, as Peluso says, “there’s no better feeling than being part of a winning team where you learn, grow, stay hungry, and always build for a better tomorrow.”

The question remains, however, if and when the advantages of working together as a team in inspiring places will overcome the initial shock of being forced to choose between relocating or looking for a new job. In fact, chances are IBM will lose part of its marketing employees – and the most competent ones first, as they can easily find a new job instead of moving to the location they were assigned to.

If this ‘come back to the office or else’ dilemma leads to a wave of resignations there will, however, be one positive side effect. The department will be left with the most motivated marketers, people who believe in the company, the future of marketing and are ready to invest personally in the company.

Source: The Register & Quartz

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