Virtual teams — geographically scattered colleagues who use high-tech communication — are now common in many organizations. Some of those team members are remote workers and some still work onsite, in the traditional office.
Plenty of pundits have examined this trend and decided the office is a dead man walking. But if remote work is indeed going to kill office work, get ready for a tough time. Remote work can be hard, both for workers and their managers. Even if the employer has a good flexible working policy and the employee has the right skills for remote work, there are downsides to working from home.
Why all the talk of the death of the office? Here are 10 shining examples of how onsite work trumps remote work. They include comments by a British industry panel led by national daily The Guardian and conference call company Powwownow.
1: Working onsite fosters innovation
It’s all very well offering flexible working improvements like remote work to employees, but businesses need bodies onsite. When Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, forced all employees to work in the office, she was encouraging collaboration of innovation to improve the fortunes of the venerable internet organization. A Yahoo! company memo from chief development officer Jackie Reses read, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”
2: Onsite workers are easier to manage
In addition to the regular employee management that a team leader deals with, remote workers carry plenty of extra baggage that needs managing. Having remote workers, “creates a potential problem for managers used to having their team in the same room as them,” said Jonathan Swan, of work/life balance charity Working Families.
3: Remote working tools are poor
The only bug with the office whiteboard is when someone leaves the top off a pen. Virtual whiteboards have an entire technology stack to go wrong. And have you ever heard the phrase “The VPN isn’t working”? Paul Lees, Powwownow’s CEO, said, “I don’t believe the technology is there yet to allow us to work together remotely.”
Employees who need a little water-cooler conversation in their lives actually like being in the office every day. “The office should remain for those that want the office,” said Robert Gorby, Powwownow’s marketing director.
5: Some employees can’t telecommute
Not everybody has that certain combination of skills to successfully work from home. Also, remote workers must show better discipline, communication skills, and punctuality than their office-bound colleagues. In other words, they have to run faster just to keep up.
6: Communication is easier in the office
Can you share a pizza in a video conference? No. Can you share donuts using Windows Messenger? No. And what happens when you communicate less effectively with your peers? They trust you less. Remote workers must be even more contactable than their office-based colleagues or trust goes out the window.
7: Local workers are easier to trust
Time Etc. co-founder Victoria Mileham said that clients had a tendency to be suspicious about how long work was taking if they could not see the people doing it. Less “out of sight, out of mind” and more “out of sight and making me nervous.” How do we know that telecommuter is not shirking at home, feet up in front of the TV and browsing job vacancies?
8: Office work is nurturing
Julie Kortens, head of corporate services at British TV broadcaster Channel 4, highlighted some of the benefits of working onsite — especially for younger staff. “You need guidance as you’re developing,” she said, adding that it’s important for young people to have a sense of belonging and that they needed to know the rules and boundaries between work and play before taking advantage of remote working.
9: Many jobs can’t be done remotely
In Europe, where many employees have a legal right to be considered for flexible work, only 18% actually telework (telework is defined as remote work using IT). In Germany it’s 12% –and those workers are mainly highly qualified, such as managers, academics, lawyers, journalists, engineers and teachers.
10: Flexible hours are popular with businesses (remote work, less so)
A CBI (Confederation of British Industry) employment trends survey said, “Five years ago, just 13% of firms offered teleworking for employees in at least certain roles some of the time, but now nearly six in ten (59%) do so.” Sounds like a lot, right? But just because remote work options are available doesn’t mean that’s the type of flexible working all the cool companies are doing. Andy Lake, editor of flexible work resource Flexibility, said that more than 90% of companies offered flexible working of some kind, but that this was mostly flexible hours and part-time working.
Dead or merely transformed?
Office work is alive, well, and adapted to the needs of modern organizations. Traditional onsite working is going nowhere. David D’Souza, managing director of Oddbody Consulting, said, “The office isn’t dead – it’s just becoming far more fluid.”