A Skype meeting from the beach; Slacking your colleagues from your sofa; a Zoom meeting in your favorite wine bar. Digital nomads – and remote workers – can certainly enjoy some serious flexibility thanks to modern technology. And the latest stats from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the appetite for working remotely is steadily growing. However, with companies like IBM, Bank of America, Yahoo, and Aetna calling their employees back into the office is ‘working from home’ (wherever home may be) really all it’s cracked up to be?
One of the main arguments in the case for working from home is that people feel more productive when doing it. And it’s true, offices are full of distractions – chatty co-workers and office noise were cited as the ‘top distractors’ in a 2018 Workplace Distraction Report. However, it would be wrong to believe that there are no obstacles to productivity for homeworkers – daytime TV, social media and household chores are among the most popular.
But the problems of working from home can go far deeper than purely being distracted from the task at hand. Humans are social animals and we usually strive to form real-life relationships. Without daily interaction with colleagues, a sense of isolation can creep in and job-related frustrations can mount without anyone to vent to by the water-cooler. Working in a physical environment where values and goals are shared can help to foster a sense of belonging, which in turn can have a positive impact on employees’ health and well-being.
The reality is that being able to work from anywhere in the world might help employees soak up the culture of Bali, the south of France, or their living rooms, but when it comes to company culture, remote workers can end up feeling more like an Englishman in New York when in the office.
Let’s get down to business
IBM, an early adopter of remote working, started to call its employees back into the office in 2017. The reason behind the company’s surprising move was technology – real-time data and lighting fast communications requiring a response time that can only be provided by in-person collaboration. If your job demands very little personal interaction and collaboration, then working from home might be suitable. But some jobs are undoubtedly best conducted in an office environment.
Take scrum teams for example – a group of individuals, usually in software development companies, who rely on close personal collaboration, much like in a rugby team, from whence it gets its name. The work they do is focused around daily activities for the whole team, including morning ‘stand-ups’ where each member is required to be present in order to plan the day’s work together. And this sense of working as a ‘collective’ is also true in creative roles. When like-minded people collide, new ideas can come from it and productivity often increases, something many people struggle with when working independently from home. Particularly if your home isn’t set up for it.
According to a study commissioned by Drayton, makers of the smart home heating system, WISER, found that only 26% of homeworkers work from a home office, and 10% even work from their beds. This might be tempting in terms of convenience, but it doesn’t create the most productive environment.
And it’s not just your surroundings. Time differences can also throw a spanner in the works of productivity. While one or two hours’ difference is passable, working with colleagues on the other side of the world can create problems. In jobs requiring a rapid response rate, a ten-hour response delay is unthinkable.
What about the customers?
There are several good reasons for employees to work office-based, but what about the customers? They too benefit from your staff ‘staying in’. For one, there is the aspect of innovation – respect and trust in a team are best achieved on the premise where people see each other regularly and are able to form personal, tight-knit relationships. Creating an atmosphere in which creativity is welcomed and no idea is ‘too stupid’ is paramount for driving innovation. There is a reason why brainstorms to this day usually happen face-to-face in a designated room without distractions. In dis-jointed teams, people might be more apprehensive about vocalizing their concerns or the lack of familiarity with their co-workers might cause them to feel offended by well-meaning criticism.
Secondly, with customer support in mind, let’s talk about problem-solving and response rates. When employees work remotely, they are not able to just wander two desks over to get an answer to an urgent customer question. Even with the technologies available to us, there is no guarantee that the other person is on the other end at the exact time you need them. Having a colleague physically sat next to you when you need immediate support is not only reassuring but enables a business to guarantee faster and better customer service.
Lastly, working remotely comes with its own technological challenges – balancing a multitude of communication streams such as instant messaging apps and project management tools, and of course, emails, crucial customer information might slip through the cracks.
A measured approach
Working remotely has its benefits, especially for parents, carers, and people who require flexibility. But it certainly is worth considering the benefits of working in an office environment – for employees and customers alike. Nothing can replace the instant support and camaraderie real-life colleagues can provide.
Considering that distractions in the office are the main reason cited for remote working, it ultimately comes down to companies providing the space employees need to enable them to thrive, including quiet areas and breakout rooms. When crucial needs are met, maybe then we can entice the workforce to come ‘home’ to the office.
About the author: Martyn Davies, is the Director, of Rocket Software.