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Why big companies are turning their back on telecommuting in favor of the fastest, most reliable communication technology: Face-to-face conversation

Like many people, I occasionally “telecommuted” for work—avoiding flooded roads (the Houston version of a snow day), catching up on expense reports, or connecting with clients in another time zone—until last spring. My wife and I married in April and, in May, we relocated the dog, the home and my position with The Alexander Group to Denver. I became a full-time remote worker for the first time. And I am not alone in embracing the remote work approach.

According to Gallup, 43 percent of US employees work remotely all or some of the time. Workplace researcher GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com reported that, among the population who are not self-employed, “Regular work-at-home…has grown by 140% since 2005.”

Despite this upward trend, several big employers, like Apple and Google, never embraced flexible work arrangements. Other companies—Yahoo, Bank of America, Aetna—have reduced or completely eliminated their telecommuting programs. Recently, IBM, the company that pioneered the movement, announced that it wanted thousands of workers to return to a physical office again.

Why are these companies reversing their telecommuting policies?

Can’t beat face-to-face conversation for collaboration

Working remotely works well for positions, like mine, that mainly require interaction with clients or other far-flung associates. It also works well for positions that don’t require much interaction at all, such as writers, data analysts, or software developers.

But for other types of work that require collaboration, there is efficiency in proximity. Electronic communication technologies such as email, videoconferencing and apps like Slack are expensive and cumbersome when compared to the original communication technology: face-to-face conversation.

When IBM recalled its marketing team to centralized offices, Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Peluso justified the move, saying “There is something about a team being more powerful, more impactful, more creative, and frankly hopefully having more fun when they are shoulder to shoulder.”

“I think these companies are really struggling to compete at an innovation level with smaller-stage organizations,” said Thanh Nguyen, managing director of HR consulting firm Connery Consulting in a recent NBC News article. “They’re thinking of every single possible way to reunite people to drive better innovations.”

Nguyen hypothesizes that larger bureaucracies can’t compete with young start-ups with a dispersed workforce. “While [remote working] solutions like Slack and Asana make telecommuting much easier, it's difficult when you have a sub team of 1,000.”

Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer defended her 2013 decision to end the company’s work-from-home policy by first acknowledging that “people are more productive when they’re alone,” and then adding, “but they are more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

And there may be science behind that. Researchers from UC San Diego and UC Irvine demonstrated the value of verbal and non-verbal communication in an analysis of a simulated flight—specifically the moments after one crew member diagnoses a fuel leak. Using verbal and nonverbal communication, the three-man crew identify and diagnose the situation in just 24 seconds. How many e-mail messages would have been needed to achieve the same end result?

When does remote work… work?

Having spent the majority of my career in an office environment, I held romanticized notions of working from home—no commute time, lower dry-cleaning bill, all-hours access to the kitchen. While true, there were also unforeseen challenges.

We have a very large dog (103 lbs.), a glass front door, and an unfortunately sensitive Ring-brand doorbell. For several months, every time someone walked past the house or up to the door, the dinging of the sensor led to the dog charging to the front door, his “big boy” voice erupting throughout the house. Until we lowered the sensitivity, my finger continuously hovered over the mute button on every call.

Today, I am a remote-working pro. And while it isn’t all PJs and paradise, there are some undeniable advantages:
  • With limited or no distractions, like unplanned meetings or loud colleagues, a disciplined remote worker can better focus on the task at hand. There was a two- or three-day stretch recently when I was slammed with work and looming deadlines. Lacking a commute to and from an office, I was at my desk only minutes after waking up each day and, limiting potential distractions and with no unplanned interruptions, I was able to successfully finish my tasks in a fraction of the time it would have normally taken me.

There’s no denying the attractiveness to employees and potential productivity gains of a flexible work arrangement. At the same time, there’s no substitute for proximity and old-fashioned face-to-face conversation to fuel creativity and collaboration. In the end, every company must embrace the balance that works best for their workforce and their organization’s strategic priorities.


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James Irvine

James W. Irvine

Senior Associate