While technology makes remote work more and more feasible, companies are finding that keeping employees on site is more effective. There are significant disadvantages to remote work and equally significant advantages to working in the office.
Should companies allow employees to work from home, some or all of the time? After all, with the communication possibilities of the digital age — from submitting materials through email or dropbox to low-cost teleconferencing and video-conferencing — the old reasons for making employees commute to the office every day no longer apply. Why not eliminate commute time, save office space and costs, and let them work remotely? Such is the argument from proponents of remote work, and many progressive companies, notably Internet firms always at the vanguard of innovative work practices, were beginning to listen.
But is remote work truly more efficient and productive? Many managers and business owners had their doubts — doubts confirmed to some extent when Yahoo, a company that is after all specialized in digital communication, suddenly announced the end of remote work.
For Professor Richard Arvey, head of the Department of Management and Organisation at National University of Singapore Business School, there’s good reason to doubt. His research shows that not only are there disadvantages to working or meeting remotely, but also that there are significant psychological advantages in co-location and face-to-face meetings.
A major advantage is captured in the phrase ‘face-to-face’: people can see each other’s faces, and not just faces but entire bodies. It’s impossible to catch the nuances of facial expressions, gestures, body language, even tone of voice through an email. In fact, an email can easily lend itself to misinterpretation.
Even in video-conferencing many of the nuances of body language and tone are lost. And yet such verbal and non-verbal behaviours are vital to successful understanding and collaboration among team members or participants at a meeting.
In addition, Arvey found that remote employees — easily distracted by other work tasks, checking email, irrelevant side conversations, and other diversions — are not as engaged in a meeting as when they are present in the room.
Arvey also notes that humans are by nature social creatures. “Being physically in the same place serves a primitive human need,” he explains. We seek contact with others, and avoid isolation. Email, teleconferencing or video-conferencing does not satisfy this need.
Another advantage of face-to-face interaction is that decisions are made in real time. The flexibility of the ‘answer at your pace’ characteristic of email can be useful, but it also slows the pace of discussion and decision-making.
Face-to-face interactions can also be more ad hoc and less formal than email conversations, which will always have some structure of formality to them. Participants in meetings or on teams develop what psychologists call ‘exchange relationships,’ which are built on informal negotiations, favours, promises or understandings. Such exchange relationships are difficult to develop through the technology of email messages.
On-site employees are also going to develop a better understanding of their roles in their organizations — how they fit in — than off-site employees. They will also be able understand more completely and deeply the culture of the organization.
Finally, according to Arvey, there are unintended but positive side benefits. For example, ad hoc discussions and impromptu meetings between employees in an office can lead to surprising breakthroughs and innovative ideas. These types of discussions and meeting are less likely to take place among employees connected only by email or Skype.
Many work management practices and attitudes, some originating from the industrial revolution-era, have been discredited or rendered obsolete in the digital age. From the rejection of top-down command leadership in favour of intrinsic motivation to the recognition of work-life balance issues and personal fulfilment to delegation and employee empowerment, progressive companies are rejecting the past and redesigning the future workplace.
Perhaps, however, some traditional practices exist for good reasons. Remote work might satisfy the employee-centred approach to work in the 21st century, but separating workers is actually undermining collaboration, teamwork and productivity.
There may be situations in which remote work is feasible and even preferable. But given the advantages of face-to-face collaboration and interaction, these situations should be taken as exceptions rather than the rule. The best approach, in fact, is to find the optimal combination of remote and on-site work that best helps your company achieve its goals.
In short, the end of the secretarial pool does not signal the end of the office. Use technology in moderation to enhance productivity, while keeping the best of what worked before anyone had heard of the Internet: human contact.
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