Forget the Office: Let Employees Work from Home
Businesses are more efficient and employees more productive when people work remotely instead of at one central office. Pro or con?
Pro: Undeniable Savings
Although remote workers are thought to complicate a manager’s job, a highly distributed workplace has too many potential advantages to dismiss.
For most industries, the feasibility of working from home is determined largely by the structure of the employer and the motivation of the employee. In such situations, employers that can be flexible about work location may reap several rewards.
A company that embraces remote workers before its competitors can gain an edge in recruiting. Lifestyle concerns can easily trump salaries in a top worker’s decision process, and a superstar at a distance is often preferable to a local journeyman. Flexibility also enlarges the applicant pool. Being open to physically handicapped or geographically isolated workers can improve the prospects for finding a highly qualified candidate.
Embracing remote workers can reduce costs and improve productivity. For example, some businesses can save $8,000 a year for each employee who telecommutes. Office costs drop with fewer people on-site, while salaries may be lower for employees in the hinterlands. Moreover, many employees focus better and produce more without the distractions of an office.
Finally, supporting remote workers requires many of the same processes and technologies that global teams do. A small company contemplating global expansion might do well to start by supporting a distributed workplace in its own region.
Nathaniel Borenstein is the chief scientist of Mimecast. In 1985 he developed the Andrew Message System, the first multimedia electronic mail system to be used outside of a laboratory. In 1992, Borenstein co-created the MIME protocol, to date the Internet-standard multimedia data format for e-mail.
Con: Communications Deficit
Management research shows unequivocally that without face-to-face interaction, performance and the mental health of employees suffer.
My studies using sensor ID badges to measure human interaction in the workplace show that people with extensive face-to-face networks are roughly twice as productive as people who keep to themselves or only communicate over e-mail. The mental toll is equally striking: Face-to-face interaction accounts for nearly all boosts in job satisfaction, while e-mail communication has no effect.
Now imagine what happens when people work from home and can only rely on electronic forms of communication. For example, how long would it take to write an e-mail to explain all the nuances of your position on your company’s R&D budget? Probably a few hours. Then people would get back to you with their positions, also spending hours going over fine points that you didn’t think to consider when you wrote your e-mail, and this back and forth could take days or even weeks. But if you met face to face, you could accomplish this entire discussion in an hour.
There’s the added benefit of being able to go out for coffee afterward; even if we disagreed, we could build social capital difficult to reproduce through electronic media. Without face-to-face interaction, people become less committed to one another and the organization. Until communication technology vastly improves, we are better served by utilizing the mode of interaction that we’ve refined as a species over millions of years: face-to-face communication.
Ben Waber is president and chief executive officer of Sociometric Solutions, a management consulting firm that specializes in social sensing technology. He’s also a senior researcher at Harvard Business School and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab, where he received his PhD in the Human Dynamics Group. Waber has served as a consultant on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design for such concerns as LG Electronics, McKinsey & Co., and Gartner.