IBM To Managers: Relocate Near an Office or Leave

IBM is making its stance on in-person work clear, and is willing to lose staff over it.

After demanding rank-and-file workers back into the office last September, IBM has issued a similar ultimatum to US managers still working remotely: return to the office, or get dropped from the company.

Impacted employees will be required to make it into an IBM office or client location at least three days a week, and will also need to relocate if they live over 80 kilometers away, according to a recent report by Bloomberg.

As companies try and bolster collaboration and productivity, return-to-office mandates are becoming standard practice in 2024. However, with IBM announcing that cuts will be expected later this year, could its ‘relocate or quit' ultimatum be a motive for staff to leave voluntarily?

IBM Managers Are Being Summoned Back into the Office

As companies forge their own paths out of the great Covid-19 WFH experiment, IBM has just expanded its return to office mandate to managers.

According to a memo sent out by Senior VP John Granger on January 16, remote managers will have to have to return to the office in person for at least three days a week come August, “regardless of current work location status”.

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For many managers who have been enjoying remote privileges since 2020, this policy change will also require them to relocate closer to office or client locations. Typically, this will involve moving within an 80-kilometer radius from a hub, according to someone close to the company.

“IBM is focused on providing a work environment that balances flexibility with the face-to-face interactions that make us more productive, innovative and better able to serve our clients,” – IBM spokesperson

While employees with medical issues or on military service are exempt from the policy, the company will be using badge-in data to evaluate the attendance of remaining managers. And if impacted staffers don't comply, and are able to find a remote position, they must “separate from IBM”, reads the memo.

IBM's Announcement Shouldn't Shock Managers

While Granger's memo may have surprised IBM managers who have been able to circumvent physical offices for some time, the announcement is fairly consistent with the companies overarching stance on remote work.

When IBM CEO Arvind Krishna told workers they wouldn't be forced to return to the office last May, he also warned in the same breath that failing to do so would harm careers in the long run by making it harder to land promotions.

IBM also cracked down on remote working for regular employees last September, telling them they “must be better stewards of getting into the office” if they want to preserve flexible hybrid working as a whole. While this directive was only applicable to employees living 50 miles from an IBM office, the memo explained other workers were only “exempt at this time”, hinting that future measures were likely.

But whether or not managers should have seen the policy coming, is demanding workers to relocate at the risk of losing their job a reasonable request to make in 2024?

Are Relocate or Quit Ultimatums Ethical?

IBM's recent memo enters them into a long line of companies that have recently made similar relocate or quit ultimatums, with AT&T, Grindr, and Amazon forcing their employees to make similar decisions in 2023.

Similarly to IBM, AT&T's directive was just focused on managers. Yet, just with only nine office locations open across the US, 9,000 workers were forced to choose between moving homes or finding work elsewhere. With so many workers feeling pushed into a corner, one AT&T manager described this as a layoff disguised as an RTO policy – and employment experts agree.

According to Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, many companies are using RTO mandates as a layoff strategy. “This can be seen in patterns where companies first implement layoffs and then follow with an RTO mandate, or vice versa,” she tells WorkLife.

Some companies are blatantly using the strategy to avoid paid severance packages, Tsipursky explains, with one employee from a major retail company telling her she was explicitly told the RTO policy was being deployed as a cover for layoffs.

Despite delivering a positive outlook for revenue in 2024, IBM recently announced it would be cutting a percentage of positions in the “low single digits” this year. This gives credence to Tsipursky's theory that IBM could be trying to get staff to up-sticks voluntarily.

But no matter IBM's intention, one thing is for certain: forcing workers to move home amid a cost of living crisis or risk losing their job, is unlikely to play out well in the long run.

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Written by:
Isobel O'Sullivan (BSc) is a senior writer at Tech.co with over four years of experience covering business and technology news. Since studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL), she’s been a regular contributor to Market Finance’s blog and has also worked as a freelance tech researcher. Isobel’s always up to date with the topics in employment and data security and has a specialist focus on POS and VoIP systems.
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