The number of Americans who telecommute jumped nearly 80 percent from 2005 to 2012, according to a study based on U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s 3.2 million full-time employees of companies who work out of their homes, making up 2.6 percent of the U.S. workforce. If you count the self-employed and anyone who works outside a regular office, then nearly a third of American workers could be considered telecommuters.
It’s not hard to see why the ranks of telecommuters have expanded so quickly. Telecommuting can free employees from the time-wasting drudgery of long commutes, and from the many office distractions that can impede productivity. And it allows some employees to flexibly blend work with the comforts and responsibilities of home life—be it relaxing in the den while reading reports, or being present to greet children returning from school. Meanwhile, technology is providing more and better options for staying in close touch with managers, colleagues, partners and customers.
Yet some major employers, including Yahoo, Best Buy and Hewlett-Packard, have in the last few years reversed liberal telecommuting policies and pressured employees to return to the office. In an age when commerce, entertainment, social interactions and an enormous portion of our work have migrated online, isn’t forcing people to rub shoulders in an office building a needless and even counter-productive anachronism?
I don’t think so. Frequent physical presence can be a crucial element of organizational success. It’s not that telecommuters don’t work at least as hard as employees in the office. Rather, the issue revolves around a more nuanced view of productivity, and what it is that enables employees to fully contribute to a team.
“Team” is the operative word here. For more and more organizations, the value of employees’ individual contributions have come to pale beside the impact that team performance has on organizational goals. Companies win not by getting employees to put in more hours grinding out more widgets or crunching through more reports, but by establishing rich, stimulating cultures that nurture innovation and engagement. Developing and sustaining that sort of culture is all about collaboration and teamwork, and not so much about the sort of quiet concentration one can achieve working alone at home.
There’s no one right way to build a culture of collaboration, but most paths have certain elements in common: frequent useful feedback, mechanisms for making employees feel listened to and valued, reinforcement of team spirit, and multiple sources of inspiration, encouragement and guidance. Yes, of course, all of this can happen via electronic communications. But I think most of us recognize that these types of complex, often subtle, emotionally rich interactions are more likely to happen face-to-face than through a screen.
Collaborative excitement doesn’t happen automatically when you invite people into a building together. It requires leadership capable of fostering the right sort of culture. But it’s more likely to happen when people are chatting by the coffee machine, making eye contact across cubicles, observing body language during meetings, eating lunch together, and the many other ways we communicate with our colleagues. Part of the reason we like the electronic world is that we can better control our availability—but sometimes it’s the less-controllable availability of physical presence that invites the spontaneous discussion or observation that can lead to a breakthrough.
Sure, in the next few years, the ever-advancing world of electronic communications may find ways to surpass the advantages of physical presence in spurring cultures of collaboration and teamwork. And needless to say, organizations can find appropriate middle grounds between telecommuting-friendly and fully office-based environments—it’s not a clear-cut issue. (Yahoo, Best Buy and HP seemed to take their anti-telecommuting positions to sharply correct environments that had drifted too far in the other direction, among other problems.)
But in a world where the trend has been to increase reliance on electronic communications, it’s critical that leaders make a point of thinking through the costs and benefits of allowing physical presence to become a depreciating asset.
-Steven J. Thompson, CEO at Johns Hopkins Medicine International, Senior Vice President Johns Hopkins Medicine