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Workplace productivity

May 10, 2017 | 5 min read

Working remote vs. in office: Why we need more balance and less debate

By: Phil Kirschner

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The benefits of remote work are far-reaching and pretty profound. Studies show remote workers (who work outside the office some, but not all, of the time) on average are more productive, more innovative and more engaged. Companies who have remote work policies experience less turnover and are more attractive to employees—and young workers in particular. Organizations are able to spend less on real estate to seat people and the environment benefits from a break in their daily commute.

All positives considered, it’s no surprise that remote work is on the rise. Pervasive technology has made virtual communication simpler and more achievable than ever before. In the future, the mark of an agile organization will be one that can keep up with this shift in how and where work is done (a concept explored in detail in our recent Future of Work report).

Still, several large organizations have insisted that employees return to the office. In 2013, Yahoo and Best Buy reversed their flexible work policies and Hewlett-Packard limited its use. In 2014, Reddit closed two offices, requiring employees to commute to a farther office or find a new job. And just this February, IBM began implementing a “move or leave” program to reunite employees in six strategic locations.

In nearly every case, leadership cited a need for “all hands on deck” and better collaboration in order to improve the business. 

Why we work in the office

At the risk of sounding theatric, many organizations believe the office is simply where the magic happens. Out of collaboration, collision and collective energy comes innovation. With the pace of business change as quick as it is, companies are laser-focused on creating continuous innovation. In the workplace, we typically have greater access to technology, more impromptu interactions and a stronger cultural connection—all of which make collaboration easier and move the business forward.

Why we work outside the office

Of course, the reason many people work remotely is because that space meets a need the office does not.

When working with clients, we often hear “I work from home on Fridays to tackle things I can’t get done in the office—either because people drop by, my schedule gets out of control or it’s too noisy.”

At home or in a third place, employees can work uninterrupted and experience a greater sense of work-life balance. When you have the option to skip the commute and customize your workday, your mind is free of added stress. Many people tend to work longer hours outside the office, because 1) they’re not distracted and 2) they’re in charge. For employees, focus is mandatory and autonomy is highly engaging.

Balance is best

From all of this back and forth, we find that neither extreme is best. Gallup surveys show that fully remote workers are among the least engaged of any worker, but so are employees who always come in. Just 30% of employees in both groups are engaged.

The general consensus from numerous remote work studies (like this one) is that working remotely two to three days a week allows for a balance of collaboration (at work) and concentration (at home).

This underscores the fact that our needs are never one-size-fits-all. The ideal space varies with employees’ task, mood and even their role. People who have a private office at work may take it for granted. A closed door doesn’t necessarily equal concentration.

Likewise, working from home is hailed as the ultimate distraction-free zone, but whether you’re distracted by your kids, your freedom or your refrigerator is a separate struggle.

Herein lies the problem with the remote vs. in-office debate: The question is not where we’re more productive, it’s about which space provides more focus.

What we should be considering—and what employees want—is how to provide an engaging experience without sacrificing concentration.

Cultivating a workplace experience

Focus is almost always the biggest problem in corporate offices because it’s difficult to disappear. When you’re physically present, there’s a greater chance of interruption. It could be a space problem (you have nowhere else to go) or a culture problem (you’re uncomfortable actually going).

Our individual preferences have to be met – comfort, collaboration and the ability to concentrate. If we can get those needs met elsewhere, why brave the commute to come in?

In the future, if attendance is down and performance is lacking, a knee-jerk policy may not be enough to jumpstart engagement.

The office of the future is morphing into something more organic, less structured and more focused on employee wellbeing. It gives people space to get away, to concentrate, collaborate, meet and socialize. It provides a welcoming, enjoyable, more productive experience, but attendance is optional.

Digital drive will continue to distribute the workforce, enabling people to work anywhere they want. More workers will join the contingent workforce, launching “portfolio” careers working for multiple companies. We’ll shift to a liquid gig economy, as younger workers demand more and more flexibility.

To mandate their presence neglects your role in their decision to stay home. Ask yourself, why aren’t people coming in? What experience aren’t we providing? It’s unrealistic (and unproductive) to expect all work to be completed in the office all of the time. But if you are going to compete with the home and third place—two places people really like to be—then the office should be a destination worth the trip. Otherwise, can you blame them for phoning it in?


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Ed Nolan

Ed Nolan

Senior Vice President, Workplace Strategy
Workplace Guru
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You know the workplace is changing, and office design is a big part of it. But how do you differentiate between a passing fad and lasting feature? This report details six practical workplace design trends gleaned from the tech industry that can deliver value for any company—no matter how traditional.


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