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The AR Group

The Mobile Workforce: Is Face-to-Face Collaboration Really More Effective?

By?Joshua Herold-Olson



The Society of Human Resource Management?reported that last year, for the first time, over half of U.S. companies offered employees the opportunity to work remotely, providing more freedom, flexibility, and potentially more happiness in their jobs. ?It is estimated that by the end of next year, more than one billion people, a staggering 30 percent of the world?s workforce, will be working remotely.

According to a Cisco study on the international workplace, three out of five workers report that, thanks to the digital revolution, they do not need to work in a ?company? office to be productive. ?Devices like laptops, tablets, and smartphones appear to have revolutionized what it means to be a productive and efficient employee. ?It seems that many believe it a forgone conclusion that remote employees are just as productive as their in-office colleagues so long as they have at least an Internet connection through which they can hold meetings, collaborate on reports and proposals, and correspond with clients. ?To the extent that a remote work relationship remains a productive one, measuring the success of the arrangement on productivity alone does not seem, at least to some, to be sufficient. ?That is, even assuming that the productivity of remote employees is on par with that of their in-office colleagues, what other impact results from the loss of face-to-face collaboration? ?In other words, is the lack of human interaction and face-to-face collaboration ?good for business??

Earlier this year, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, caused a bit of ruckus when she required all 11,000 remote workers to return to the office, effectively banning Yahoo?s work-at-home policy. ??To become the best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side??she said. ?Yahoo?s HR Manager, Jackie Reses further backed Mayer?s position by stating in a company wide memo that ?Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.? ?As a business decision, Mayer wants Yahoo to move forward more rapidly with teams focusing on collaboration and communication, two things she clearly thinks are most effective face-to-face.

Shortly after Meyer?s announcement, Best Buy followed suit by canceling its work-from-home policy, further spreading a nationwide discussion about re-evaluating work-at-home policies as effective work options. ?Much like Mayer?s Yahoo, Hubert Joly?s Best Buy is in the midst of turning itself around and according to Best Buy spokesman Matt Furman, ?Bottom line, it?s ?all hands on deck? at Best Buy and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.?


Collaboration & Location

Such decisions are not one-size-fits-all acts or indicative of a general industry trend. ?On the contrary, work-from-home policies are becoming more prevalent across a variety of industries now with some 13.4 million, (or 10% of working Americans) working from home at least one day a week. ?Some instances within certain companies or industries absolutely require face-to-face interaction and on-site collaboration, and perhaps struggling companies like Yahoo and Best Buy fall into this category. ?”When a company is bleeding profusely, it requires a great deal of interpersonal communication to develop effective responses to critical challenges,” states Stewart Freidman, Wharton professor of management and Director of the Work/Life Integration Project. ?”The need to be able to communicate in rich media, i.e., face-to-face, is much more important there than it would be, say, for a call center worker in China, where you can measure performance in very concrete, demonstrable ways.” ?Lynn Wu, professor of information management also at Wharton, further suggests that on-site, face-to-face collaboration is most valuable when launching new projects or attacking a set of problems a company is trying to solve. “It’s important when you are in the information-seeking stage or the exploration stage,” Wu states. ?”But there comes a point when you know what you need to do, and you just have to get it done. ?At that point, it’s OK to stay at home.”

So is face-to-face collaboration really any more effective than remote collaboration? ?As usual, the answer is not cut and dried. ?The value of serendipitous, face-to-face encounters Mayer and Joly speak of certainly seem real, but is difficult to quantify. ?Some companies are in a far better business state, both organizationally and technologically, to offer work-from-home policies that maintain and grow strong collaborative cultures. Many projects themselves require an ?all hands on deck? policy with little to no room for any remote work. ?However difficult to assess, the effectiveness of face-to-face collaboration is an on-going business decision that takes into account dozens of company-specific circumstances. ?As new studies are revealing that working from home may actually be associated with higher productivity and better employee morale, the rise of mobile business technology is also further redefining what collaboration and teamwork was, is, and can be.

We at The AR Group have followed this discussion with a fair amount of interest and intrigue ? especially since our firm utilizes a virtual model in which most of our lawyers and some staff work from home offices. ?To question the extent to which a team member?s location materially affects our team?s ability to collaborate, is not, we think, the right question, nor issue. ?Ask anyone that works remotely or anyone that works with someone who works remotely and it is highly probable that one or both will affirm that the relationship between a remote worker and a non-remote worker is different and because of that difference these relationships need to be cultivated in a way that recognizes if not respects the difference. ?But that difference does not mean that it necessarily results in an inherently less communicative, collaborative, or dynamic work relationship. ?Relationships are successful ? whether working side-by-side, in the same building, in different states or different continents ? when people, all people (executives, mid level management, managers, and workers) communicate and remember to be inclusive ? even to the odd person out; that remotely located worker, for example.


Making Remote Collaboration Work

Remote collaboration is not easily achieved. ?Any work-at-home arrangement that begins by simply sending employees out of the office with a company laptop, is going to be rife with issues if not doomed to failure. ?So, how can business owners or HR managers put in to place an effective work-at-home program? ?The first thing to note is that as with most policy initiatives that we discuss with our clients, policies, benefit programs and new initiatives, need to ?work? with ? which is to say ?fit? — the culture in question. ?In other words, a policy that works in one organization is probably not all that portable to another. ?In that context, we do not offer a roadmap as much as a list of issues to contemplate as organizational leaders consider whether a work-at-home policy or program is right for them. ?These include:

  • Encourage Increased Communication -?The office environment urges instant communication, the type that is almost taken for granted. ?Thanks to the digital revolution, remote workers have more tools than ever before to maintain a high level of communication and to potentially go beyond what is possible in an office environment. ?Visual telecommunication tools like Skype and FaceTime, instant messaging, text messaging services, and remote, cloud-based document and project space resources are changing the way professionals collaborate. ?It is important to assess, in advance, the degree to which your organization can readily rely on these tools, giving careful consideration to privacy and security interests of your customers or clients while also realizing the human nature element of still needing to encourage not just the remote workers to use these tools but also the in-office workers to become more comfortable with them as well ? so as to ensure that communications between all workers continue to flow.
  • Hire the Right People -?Companies should only hire professionals who demonstrate the ability to produce results without constant monitoring. ?These employees must be inherently accountable and understand that the flexible environment will only remain viable if it produces results. ?The purpose of a flexible work environment is to provide benefits for both the worker and the company. ?Remote workers must know that being able to work from home is not a ?perk,? but is a business decision based, in part, on the success of a participant?s collaborative ability. ?In this regard, it is particularly important to ensure that the organization?s performance management process and documentation adequately incorporates metrics that can measure the productivity of all workers, including those who work remotely. ?Organizations that place an increased emphasis on work-at-home relationships might even want to consider measuring all employees on the degree to which they effectively collaborate using the tools (i.e., Skype, FaceTime, instant messaging, cloud-based document collaboration etc.) that facilitate the remote worker model.
  • Extend the Office Culture -?It can be very easy for remote workers to feel as if they are working ?alone.? ?Remind them they are part of your organization by keeping them in the loop and soliciting their input, inviting them to company functions, and reiterating that they are a vital part of ??a team.?
  • Outline the Rules -?There are dozens of unique issues related to working remotely so management must clearly define expectations, requirements, and goals ensuring everyone is on the same page, regardless of location.
  • Realize It Is Not for Everyone -?Some employees will thrive in a remote environment while others may struggle with the lack of face-to-face communication. ?Employers will have to identify the ones that will possess the right collaborative skills.


Smart Tip:

Before transitioning a company or even only a few employees to a work-at-home policy, assess whether each position is suited to remote participation. ?Some tasks may require access to vast information or data and in-person meetings, while others may require access to software that in turn enables or facilitates effective collaboration. ?A decision to pursue a work-at-home option is a big one and should be carefully considered and constructed. ?In addition to taking the time to ensure that job design is contemplated, proper evaluation of risk and reward is encouraged. ?Significant costs can be contained through reliance on this work construct but employers should be cautioned about casually wandering down this path.