Exploring the risks vs. benefits of remote work
The term “telecommuting” was first coined in 1973 and since then has emerged into an entire lifestyle. Today it’s as common to see someone working from a coffee shop or their living room as it is to see them in an office. The offices that do exist are a far cry from the silent cubicles normalized in the 80’s- today’s open office plans boast kegs, wellness rooms, and flexible seating. Which leads us to wonder- which one actually makes more sense? Where should you be working (or how should you space out your team) so that employees are engaged, productivity is optimized and your company team performance is at an all-time high?
As the pressure to balance work and home life increases it’s easy to see why telecommuting is on the rise. Having to juggle household responsibilities, “life” and work becomes considerably easier when you can work from home or around town. Not having to take a full day off for a stuffy nose (or drag yourself to the office to contaminate coworkers) has its perks for companies as well. The real estate cost savings are obvious too- between 1995 and 2008, when they had over 40% of their employees working remotely, IBM claims to have saved over $2 billion in real estate costs. The savings on real estate are real- but at what cost?
In March 2017 IBM pulled the majority of their workers back to the office, almost eliminating remote work. Companies like Yahoo, Aetna, and Best buy followed suit. Why? Because they realized the hidden cost of remote work. When employees are unable to communicate face to face they miss out on nonverbal cues and spontaneous interactions, which have both been found to be essential in establishing trust and communication, as well as sparking innovation. Our research has repeatedly found that when employees are able to communicate in person it can increase employee engagement and team performance. In one of our studies we looked at the effects of the simple act of eating lunch with your coworkers;
People who interacted in these large lunch groups were 36% more likely to interact with each other at some other point in
the day compared to other groups, and they were also significantly more resistant to the effects of stressful events such as layoffs. (Waber 2013).
In another study a management team adjusted break schedules at a call center to give employees more interaction time and saw branch performance increase by 23%. Then we did it again, increasing sales performance by over 11% by simply allowing people more time to connect.
These studies show the importance of understanding how work actually gets done. Digital communication tools like Slack and Skype allow teams to readily communicate when they are remote, but the real power of collaboration comes from real interactions with your team. This is when you exchange ideas, build trust and develop professional relationships. Everyone benefits from the flexibility of being able to work remote occasionally, and we’ve found that it has little to no effect when done 2-3 times a month. This allows employees to take care of the “life” that happens outside the office and get in some true focus time outside of a busy office. In the long run, though, it makes sense to have teams be in a position to interact frequently to really boost innovation and productivity.