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Worker Mobility Programs Don't Always Harm Collaboration

Some high-profile firms have cracked down on remote working as they think it hampers collaboration among their teams; new evidence doesn't support this

When corporate real estate teams implement worker mobility programs – to let staff work remotely – one common objection is that working from different locations will stifle collaboration. Indeed, firms like HP and Yahoo! cited a lack of collaboration as reason to develop new policies that required or encouraged staff to work at their offices.

Conventional wisdom dictates that if employees are all in the same location, they’ll spontaneously bump into each other, start conversations, and come up with new ideas.

No Clear Answer

To find out how true this is, we spoke to Ravi S. Gajendran, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois and the co-author of a new study on the effects of telecommuting on employee performance.

The short answer, according to Gajendran’s work, is that there is no direct evidence on the effect of telecommuting on collaboration. His study examines two relevant factors: whether employees participating in programs that allow them to work remotely are dedicated employees and whether they are helpful colleagues. The results “suggest that telecommuters are able to find ways of doing their jobs well and of working with their colleagues,” Gajendran said.

One key point to consider is that many mobile workers don’t spend 100% of their time out of the office. “I think it’s important to keep in mind that telecommuting is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon,” Gajendran said. “Not all telecommuters work five days a week at home away from their colleagues. In fact, most telecommuters work one or two days at home and work the remaining time at the office. So, in that sense, collaboration is not totally compromised just because people telecommute.”

Also, telecommuters will often try to maximize the time they do spend in the office by scheduling meetings with their colleagues, according to Gajendran. “When they’re in the office, they take the extra initiative to make sure their colleagues see them as helpful collaborators or helpful people around the office,” he said.

Different Types of Collaboration

Gajendran is also careful to distinguish between different types of collaboration. Managers should consider what their employees’ collaboration is aiming to achieve to help them determine the most effective mobility options for their staff.

“If your definition of collaboration is creativity and ideation, perhaps using technology like the telephone or e-mail isn’t the most effective way of doing that,” Gajendran said. “But if collaboration is just working together on a predefined task that can be done over e-mail, it’s possible to collaborate in that fashion.”

Managers Need Training Too

So what accounts for this widespread resistance to mobility? Gajendran guesses one factor is that many companies don’t adequately train managers on the best way to manage workers who telecommute, which can lead to confusion and worry.

“I think that nervousness tends to set in: when people are away, bad things are going to happen,” Gajendran said. “But that’s more I think to do with the company not having figured out how to manage telecommuting rather than telecommuting itself being an issue.”

Another reason why managers may be reluctant to sign off on mobility programs is the way corporate real estate teams talks about the benefits. They tend to emphasize the cost savings such programs will provide, rather than explain how they can support business objectives.

For instance, previous research by Gajendran found workers who telecommute report higher job satisfaction and reduced turnover rates. Other companies have noted benefits, ranging from increased productivity to the fact that staff who telecommute often end up working longer hours.


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