Written By: Deidre Donnelly
More and more companies have distributed, decentralised workforces. But some leaders in the remote work revolution are now going back to the office model. Why?
Thanks to digitalisation, urbanisation, globalisation and more awareness of worker wellbeing, many companies have let their employees work remotely, or outsourced work to people scattered across the globe.
The concept of ‘the office team’ has changed dramatically in the last few decades to become decentralised. Statistics by Global Workplace Analytics suggest about a quarter of the U.S. workforce telecommute, permanently or semi-permanently.
Locally, Cape Town companies have been urged to let more employees work from home, given the city’s congestion and water crisis. And with office space rentals being high, other companies in South Africa are increasingly going ‘flexi’. In a global ranking by Regus, SA comes fourth in terms of having business people working remotely 2.5 days per week or more.
Why, then, have companies like Apple, Reddit, Google, Amazon and IBM spent money on attractive, tech-smart offices and called back formerly flexi-time, or remote, workers to get behind their office desks?
Ed Lovely, IBM’s vice-president of transformation and operations, said they believed innovation requires human interaction, and it often needs people to actually work in the same spaces together.
Oran Cohen, the MD of Genius Works, a Johannesburg-based company helping leaders from brands like Standard Bank and SAB Miller innovate, tends to agree: “We design environments conducive to innovation, through highly interactive workshops that allow a group of individuals to redefine old problems and create new, novel solutions. It’s incredible what can happen when individuals truly collaborate. It’s no wonder that more organisations are opting for more collaborative environments and are calling their staff back into the office. The power of collective intelligence and collective sense-making is a social act that requires us to experience our challenges from many angles.”
With this in mind, let’s consider the pros and cons to having workers operate remotely:
- It saves caves companies money as overhead costs are lowered.
- HR can recruit wider without having to offer relocation fees. You can attract more talent and retain it, as working flexibly is seen as a perk. In time, this means you can retain the knowledge of staff who, say, need to relocate to another city for family reasons.
- There are health and wellbeing benefits. Employees can go to the gym, see the doctor, work without the dreaded office aircon and in natural lighting. When they sit down to their machines, they’re more relaxed and less stressed out by traffic.
- Employee morale gets a boost as staff feel empowered and treated like adults, rather than being ‘chained to their desks’
- Staff report a better work-life balance, which 52% of staff see as important, according to a 2015 study by Oxford Economics and Plantronics. Happier, more rested staff are more productive. And more loyal.
- People can get more done with less distractions. The same study by Oxford Economics and Plantronics found that 53% of employees listed ambient office noise as a work distraction. Certain job roles, like writers or coders, value quiet time at home to get the job done.
- It can be better for productivity. Danilo Stern-Sapad, from FabFitFun, told Forbes: “At one of my first companies, we grew a remote team to more than 100 people. Often the members of this team would perform better than the people who came into the office every day because they weren’t distracted by meetings and other interruptions common to a shared office. Collaboration occurred over video, chat and project management software. People focused on work, followed established processes and were held accountable for their productivity.”
- It’s better for the environment, as less commuters mean less travel emissions.
- Having workers using their own machines, often without IT support on site, could mean security and confidentiality risks, and increased online data breach threats.
- Managing production can be tricky with teams spread across the world and its time zones.
- Working remotely requires incredible self-discipline, which not all employees will have. Industrial psychologist Marilize De Witt says: “Few people have the ability to manage and perform without any rules, deadlines, regulations. Tt comes down to whether the individual has an internal or external locus of control; whether someone has the self-discipline. Without constant supervision, some people can’t develop their own structures and procedures. What can happen is a slow decrease in performance and outcomes and making money.”
- It can limit collaboration and creativity, and there can be communication glitches.
- Working from home can hamper an employee’s sense of professionalism as the boundaries between work and home can blur.
- Whether working from home is better for wellbeing, and that elusive work-life balance, is debatable. In the Regus study, only 18% believed working at home was better for health. And just 23% believed their family relationships improved. A United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) study found that since remote workers often work longer hours, it
- Working remotely can be isolating, limiting any motivating sense of team morale and belonging. Some, like Dr Dhruv Khullar, believe the loneliness it can cause could be seriously bad for a worker’s health.
The distributed workforce is a thing of the future. So employers should seriously weigh up the pros and cons to see whether it’s the right fit for the company, or how they can make it so.