I always found it funny that the line often associated with Virtual Work is “I get to work in my pajamas!”  While I’m sure it is sometimes true, it is generally used as an explanation for how much folks enjoy the privilege of working from home.  As for me, while I occasionally work from home, I rarely actually do so in my pajamas.  Nobody needs that imagery as they read my emails.

The issue of virtual or remote work has been very hot since Marissa Mayer of Yahoo asked all of their remote employees to work in a Yahoo office.  Mayer more fully explained her decision later, but Yahoo’s actions reinvigorated the discussion of whether having employees work remotely is in the best interest of getting work done.

The decision to allow remote work is one with which many organizations, for profit and non-profit alike, often wrestle.  On the one hand, it is pretty clear that employees enjoy it, and claim to be even more productive when they do so.  On the other hand (and this was Mayer’s main point), working remotely affects both planned and accidental collaboration and can have an impact on the culture or feeling of identification with the organization.  It is easy to see both points of view.

This subject is one that I have a particular interest in because I examined the differences between virtual and face-to-face teams and their effects on organizational identification in my dissertation research.  And, as much as I would like to put forth the one true final word on this debate, in reality it is much more nuanced than that.

Of course Mayer’s decision ignited a lot of writing on the subject—a recent discussion of some of that can be found here, and what I thought was a very thoughtful take (with great comments on the piece) can be found here.  As for my research and experience, the short answer is “it depends.”  Sorry, I know that is not 100% satisfying, but let me offer some details.

WORKING REMOTELY IS NOT THE SAME THING AS WORKING IN THE OFFICE

I know—“Duh!,” right?  That point seems so obvious, but in my research and in my experience many managers compare the two ways of working as if they were the same thing.  They’re not.  Just as an email does not convey the same “weight” of a face-to-face conversation, banging out work on the laptop from home is not the same experience for the worker or his/her colleagues as someone in the building.  So before eliminating the remote work because it doesn’t live up to the on-site employee, consider some of the following:

The Work Itself

This is a point that Foster makes well in his guest post on the RepMan blog.  In the end, it’s about the quality of produced work, but it is also about the type of work being produced.  More solitary work is often done more efficiently when done in a quiet, uninterrupted environment.  Recent research even argues that brainstorming—very often thought to be done in a collaborative manner—often benefits from solitary prep work.  So…if the work calls for it, it may be very appropriate to allow or even encourage virtual work (and along those lines, is working from home really that different than working behind a closed door in the office?)

The Worker Himself/Herself

Some assume that those who tend to be less outgoing are better suited to remote work because they crave less interaction anyway.  The research suggests the opposite:  That those who are outgoing and eager to connect with others actually are better candidates for remote work than introverts.  At first blush, this seems contradictory, but after consideration it becomes easy to see: Folks who WANT to connect with others are more likely to check into the office to tap into team news, meetings, or gossip.  So… when considering remote work, ask yourself whether that individual is doing so for convenience and productivity or as a way to avoid interaction.  If it is the latter, you may want to discuss that a bit more.

It’s All About Connections

In the end, it circles back to the original argument: Yes, by definition remote workers are less connected than those in the office.  So even if the work fits, and the worker fits, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in the good old fashioned face-to-face engagement.  Remember this great United Airlines commercial? It was made more than 20 years ago, but still reminds us that sometimes nothing substitutes for personal contact.  That may mean cutting back on remote work, or even setting up expectations for at least checking into the office in some way.

Virtual work isn’t going to end.  We all do it, right?  Whether formally or not, who hasn’t dashed an email off from their phone in the evening or caught up with work in a hotel room?  Of course there are a myriad of other factors to consider, but before you make sweeping decisions about remote work in your organization, consider the objectives of the work itself, the persons being considered, and whether it is a situation that absolutely requires face-to-face interaction.

 

Do you work remotely?  What are the pros and cons in your experience personally or in managing others?  Share in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Reardon is Senior Change Management Consultant for Blackbaud with more than 15 years experience in organizational communication, virtual work, and corporate identification. Prior to joining the Blackbaud team, Michael worked as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston where he was honored with Faculty of the Year awards in 2009-2010 as well as in 2010-2011. He is also an active volunteer in his community, having focused much of his volunteer work on literacy and communication through an adult reading academy and participating as a “reading buddy” for a group of underprivileged 6-7 year olds. Self-described as an exceptional driver of minivans (and sometimes golf balls), Michael is the proud father to four children.

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