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Just a few years ago, the future of office work seemed clear: it wouldn’t be in the office at all.

Large companies began recognizing that having an off-site workforce simplified employees’ lives in terms of stressful commutes and childcare arrangements. It also gave them a larger pool of talent to choose from.

Diebold, a company that manufactures ATMs, decided to adopt a telecommuting policy to attract potential new hires from outside the Canton, Ohio area where the headquarters are located. Quickly, they were recruiting talented new employees from Silicon Valley and major US cities.

Telecommuting even cuts office maintenance costs for the company. It seemed like an all around win-win situation — until the results of widespread telecommuting policies, and the challenges of managing remote employees were seen. Now, the future of remote office workers is in question once more.

Telecommuting benefits and disadvantages

There’s no doubt that offering a telecommuting policy is attractive to potential new talent. Even people that don’t actually like working from home enjoy the flexibility and freedom it affords them. Besides, there’s always coffee shops and co-working spaces for those who don’t feel productive in their house, but don’t want to commute to an office either.

However, the downsides to working from home became clearer over time. Researchers began examining the levels of productivity and communication amongst telecommuting employees, and the results gave them some pause. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, employees were more likely to communicate with one another if they were both working in the office — even if that communication was happening via technology anyway. It was found that engineers emailed each other four times as frequently regarding a collaborative project if they were both working onsite, compared to similar projects done remotely.

Slowly, the growing enthusiasm for telecommuting workforces began to reverse direction. In 2013, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer famously revoked the company’s work from home policy, to mixed reactions in the business world.

Communication is everything

Recent research indicates that Mayer may have been in the right. Not only does physical proximity foster increased communication between employees, but that increased communication spreads important ideas. Even between employees working on different projects or in different departments, multiple workplace studies indicated that the more opportunity employees were given to mingle freely, the more creative and effective ideas would come out of the company as a whole.

Mayer justified her policy approach to remote workers by pointing to Yahoo’s successes, particularly the Yahoo! Weather app. The app came about thanks to spontaneous idea sharing between several disparate branches of the Yahoo organization, and performed extremely well upon its release.

Moving forward

The takeaway is two-fold. It’s not enough to simply limit your number of remote employees, but it’s also crucial to incorporate office design and company event planning to encourage interaction between coworkers. Break areas should be seen not just as a place for employees to hang out when they’re not being productive, but as the potential breeding ground for the company’s next great breakthrough. Regular mixers and informal company events will help get employees together and start sharing ideas, too.

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