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The Smarter debate: Does telecommuting and remote working mean the end of the office?

Every month, Smarter brings you two different sides of a topical business issue. Our selected writers go head-to-head in our debate so you can decide for yourself who comes out on top .

Every month, Smarter brings you two different sides of a topical business issue. Our selected writers go head-to-head in our debate so you can decide for yourself who comes out on top .

Is bringing your employees together in an office redundant when we can work from just about anywhere, or is there still a place for the traditional office structure in the modern world? Two Smarter writers tackle the great remote working debate.

Image comparing workers in a traditional office setting and an employee working remotely from his home.
Is remote working the future of the workplace?

Team Remote Working: Cameron Cooper - The end of the office

Imagine asking your management and human resources leaders to devise the perfect work environment to help your company and employees thrive.

What do they deliver? A scenario in which your staff have to commute for hours every day to inner-city offices, stripping them of their energy and family time; where you pay exorbitant rents for offices, only for much of the space to lay idle; where your talent catchment area is restricted to those within a car, bus or train commute, despite living in an era when going global demands recruiting the best and brightest.

You’d sack them all on the spot!

Who do you side with? Let us know on Facebook.
Find out moreWho do you side with? Let us know on Facebook.

The notion of working 9-5 in a traditional office is dying, despite the sentiments of Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer, who thinks employees are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together”.

The truth is that, even if some CEOs don’t want to embrace it, employees are demanding telecommuting and remote working options. Whether it’s working parents or millennials, the call is for flexibility – and traditional offices rarely provide it. It makes sense, too: considerable research suggests that remote workers are happier and more productive.

Smart businesses understand that encouraging remote work opportunities is a way to woo top talent, boost output and provide work-life benefits for time-poor staff. Take accounting firm EY, for example; its default position is that coming into the office is optional for employees.

Sure, working remotely can present challenges for management and employees. These may include logistical problems, such as having face-to-face meetings with clients, and the risk of becoming disconnected from informal workplace networks that help them share knowledge and project updates. Technology provides many of the answers, though.

Instead of commuting, why not let an employee walk into a Wi-Fi-enabled home office or café and use a virtual private network (VPN) with corporate-level security to get stuck into work? They can still attend a video conference when meetings are really needed. Why not share documents and files on the cloud and manage projects more efficiently, regardless of the location of team members? Why not lease tech-smart meeting spaces with the latest training and conference facilities to connect workers and clients as required, resulting in a smaller head-office footprint? Technology has changed how, when and where we work – and that’s a positive thing.

Boards and CEOs can put their heads in the sand, but telecommuting is not going away. They are better served adapting to the trend rather than resisting. A report from IDC – US Mobile Worker Population Forecast 2016-2020 – indicates the US mobile worker population will account for almost three quarters (72.3 per cent) of the total American workforce in 2020 as companies take advantage of smartphones and tablets, along with mobile technology innovations such as biometric readers, wearables, voice control and near-field communications. It points to significant cost savings, too.

Australia will surely follow suit. The bottom line is that companies that avoid telecommuting and remote working options are short-changing themselves and their employees. They risk facing a brain drain away from their business – and that is, by any measure, a dumb strategy.    

Team Office: Sholto Macpherson - Why the office will stand

Marissa Mayer’s first move stunned the business world when she took over as CEO of Yahoo in 2013. She banned her 12,000 employees from working from home.

Eight months later, the CEO of HP followed suit. Why would these CEOs – both mothers, and Mayer a mother of a newborn – advocate such a family-unfriendly position?

Critics say it’s a vain attempt to increase productivity, but another answer is to foster company culture. When people gather in one place for one purpose they create a mission and an energy greater than the sum of its parts.

Both Yahoo and HP, two giants of technology, had lost their direction and needed to rediscover their raison d’etre. The thousands of people they employed needed to learn and share this common goal. Nothing can transmit a sense of purpose faster than face-to-face communication.

Remote working has its place – I’m a big fan – but it won’t replace the office any time soon.

Just ask part-time executives, such as mothers returning to work, whether their opportunities for promotion are the same as someone in the office full time.

According to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review, office workers and bosses are heavily influenced by “passive face time”, or the mere presence of someone’s face in the office on a regular basis, when it came to reviewing performance. A Stanford and Beijing University study found that, even though at-home workers were more productive, they were half as likely to be promoted.

Even without studies it should be obvious that the shared camaraderie of travelling to the same location, putting in the same hours, living and breathing the same air puts you on a different level of familiarity.

And there is an energy to some places that a remote worker can’t hope to know.

Journalism provides a concrete example. Remote working has no way to imitate the energy of a newsroom floor. Journalists swapping contacts, debating positions, celebrating scoops. Ideas germinate, mature and bloom so rapidly. The newsroom is a living, breathing greenhouse.

This experience is not unique to news companies. Picture a lively bar or coffee shop, an animated advertising agency, even – yes, I’ve seen it – a deeply client-focused accounting firm or consultancy.

Eight months after the ban on remote working Yahoo claimed that employee engagement had increased, as had the rate of product launches. “The workplace has become a catalyst for energy and buzz,” Yahoo’s director of real estate and workplace told Fast Company.

That electric frisson when minds are exploring, creating and communicating can only reach its peak when people are working side by side.

There is one caveat – this experiential divide may not last forever. Technology such as virtual and augmented reality and holograms is on a rocket ride to close the gap. If we cannot tell whether someone in front of us is real or virtual, then the virtual
office will indeed become a reality. Think of it as a watercooler version of the Turing test.

Until then the office will continue to remain a central feature of our working lives. Not every business will have one, and many employees may choose to work remotely, but neither trend undermines the power of purpose created by like-minded people labouring together.

Follow the series - Read about the great paperless debate.
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