Virtual Work or Face to Face? Here’s Why We Really Need Both

May 30, 2014

Marissa Mayer’s decision to revoke Yahoo’s remote work policy in March of 2013 led to an explosion of criticism and stirred a huge debate about two workplace models: virtual/remote and office/face-to-face (F2F). Let’s talk about it.

Virtual/remote work

According to Forrester Research, today more than 34 million U.S. adults work remotely at least occasionally. Fueled by better collaboration tools, and growing management experience, Forrester says that U.S. remote working ranks will swell to 63 million by 2016.

We all know the benefits of working virtually: reduced commute times, increased productivity, higher levels of employee motivation and work satisfaction and better work/life balance. According to Link Resources, working remotely can increase employee productivity by up to 20 percent — which impacts the bottom line.

New focus on innovation

There is new evidence, however, that the CEOs’ priorities are changing in important ways. According to a survey of 1,500 CEOs conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value creativity — not operational effectiveness — is the key business goal now.

For hundreds of years, the goal of any business was to be productive and efficient. Now, innovation trumps productivity.

Based on revenue and profit-per-employee calculations, it appears that a focus on innovation may produce up to 2 to 15 times the amounts produced by firms that still focus on productivity.

F2F/office work

Bill Gates has said that great ideas don’t appear in isolation. Creativity is not seen so much seen in individuals working alone as it is seen in groups of people solving problems together.

As Steven Johnson noted in Where Good Ideas Come From, we tend to incorrectly picture innovation as “eureka moments” when exceptional individuals experience a sudden flash of insight when alone.

Here are some examples of what companies are doing to encourage employees whose work is innovative to work at the office:

  • Facebook plans to erect an apartment development minutes from headquarters. They’re doing this as a result of employees’ inability to afford the rents close to the office. The complex will house 394 units including studio apartments and three-bedroom apartments. Why are they doing this? They’re doing it in order to make it easy for employees whose work is mainly creative to work at the office.
  • Google has an extraordinary focus on increasing collaboration between employees from different functions. It is so conscious about designing its workplaces to maximize collaboration that it even tracks the time spent by employees in the café lines to maximize collaboration.
  • When the work day finally comes to an end, Google, Facebook, Apple, the video-game maker Electronic Arts, Yahoo, and the other big Silicon Valley companies have their own way of taking employees home. They operate huge fleets of private luxury buses that shuttle back and forth between the Valley and San Francisco, where increasing numbers of techies prefer to live. Google alone transports upwards of 3,000 employees a day on its bus service.

Hybrid model

This may cause some of you to gasp, but working remotely is NOT an entitlement. We tend to lose sight of that in our effort to bolster engagement, but it’s true. 

Is engagement important? Yes, but it’s doesn’t take first place over a company’s business plan, strategy or priorities.

Like most everything else, there is no “one size fits all” approach to go by. There is no “best practice.” It’s “company unique.”

Determining the right mix between virtual and F2F is the difficult part. Uniformity across the company would be the simple approach and would treat everyone the same. But work isn’t that simple.

Figuring out the proper mix requires a more systematic approach. Some departments/work groups need to be on site due to the innovative work they do. Other groups need to focus more on productivity/efficiency.

The end result is a “hybrid.” Some employees may be allowed to work remotely because the work they do lends itself to independent work that is mostly done via phone and computer, and the focus is on volume. Other employees need to work F2F to foster the kind of collaboration that is so necessary for innovation.

There’s no “best” approach or model

To tout virtual work as the best or only workplace approach is a fallacy. As HR people, we need to be careful about calling working remotely “the future of work.” Such a grand, sweeping statement implies that it’s the only workplace solution.

In reality, there is enough data to indicate that people are more productive when working remote … but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. And that says that both options — a hybrid model — are needed.