Sunday, November 03, 2013

Balancing the real, virtual and home office

Since 2001 in the USA there has been a 100% increase in the amount of people working from home. There are significant advantages for both the employer and employees. Companies are spending less on real estate and, according to recent research from Stanford university, working from home can deliver a 13% increase in productivity. For the workers there is the advantage of flexible working, less commute time and potentially a better work/life balance.

Alongside this, there are some important downsides and disadvantages. Remote working can breed social isolation. Not being in an office diminishes social interaction and relationship building between colleagues and in teams. People can also end up identifying less with the organisation they work for and, significantly, they can earn less respect. A recent MIT survey indicates you are 9% more likely to be considered dependable and responsible if you put in “face time” and show up at the office. 

Technology and management advice is continually developing in an attempt to address these disadvantages. Cloud computing, video conferencing, remote meeting software and so on are already in wide use. There are newer technologies too. Sococo provides an office layout on screen, where workers with little face icons can walk about the virtual office and pop into different people’s offices and meeting rooms. People can even meet by a virtual coffee machine for a chat. The company Anybot is going further. They can provide you with what is called a telepresence avatar – it’s a mini robot with wheels, a face and a screen that you can see through, hear through, speak through and drive about a real office remotely from your PC at home. You can park your robot in a real meeting for example. The only problem is they haven’t yet overcome the “Dalek syndrome” – the robot can’t go up or down stairs!

On the management advice side there are numerous recommendations ranging from increasing personal contact with remote workers, promoting networking amongst remote workers, ensuring managers are accessible, developing trust and ensuring people feel respected and so on. There’s also plenty of advice for the qualities needed for a good tele-worker – self discipline and independence being paramount.

Remote workers themselves, together with new virtual office businesses, are also taking initiatives to reduce social isolation. Many cities now have boutique style co-working clubs, where home workers can work independently or together. The style is different to a typical business centre – its more coffee bar style combined with work spaces.

But can all these initiatives overcome the disadvantages of remote working? Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, seems to not think so. She recently and famously issued a memo requiring all home workers to now work from offices. She is of the clear belief that innovation, decision making, turning a company around   all require real people working in real time in real offices.

She may have a point. Despite all the technologies there has been an increase in home workers across the board at least putting in some real office time.

Whatever the future holds companies and individuals need to find an effective balance. Companies need to balance the cost benefit of home working with the need to create a real and collaborative company spirit and culture. Individuals need to balance the advantages of home working with the need for social interaction and real life engagement with management and colleagues that can help them feel an integral and valued part of the organisation they work for.

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