With remote work rapidly on the rise among professionals in the US and other countries, one of the great debates about contemporary workplace culture concerns whether working remotely from home or a coworking space is better, worse, or just different than working on-site in an office. Some studies have suggested that remote workers are more focused and productive, and less likely to quit, than regular office employees. On the other hand, some companies, most notably IBM, have been having second thoughts about their remote work policies recently, recalling employees to the office in an effort to improve communication and team collaboration.
So is remote work better than office work, or isn’t it? Unfortunately, Humanyze CEO Ben Waber tells Sarah Kessler at Quartz, there is no simple answer to that question—it all depends on the type of work being done, among other factors including the culture of the organization and the amount of teamwork involved:
A European retail bank that hired Humanyze to analyze its office layout, for instance, found that sales teams that spent time interacting in person outperformed those who worked remotely. That appears to contradict an often-cited 2014 study by Stanford researchers that looked at how working from home impacted employees at a Chinese travel agent’s call center. The study found that employees at home were on average 13% more productive, making more phone calls and spending more time on the phone.
But the circumstances of the two workspaces were very different. Members of the sales team, Waber hypothesizes, benefit from learning how others do the job better. In-person, an improvement one person makes is more likely to be shared with others. …
“In general, if you were doing a job that is very external-facing—you’re a sales person, you’re a journalist, you’re coming up with a new idea for a research project—Working remotely tends to be pretty good,” Waber says. “If you’re working collaboratively on a project, trying to iterate quickly, in those cases, being in the office more tends to be better.”
The success of remote work can also depend on how the work is structured. For example, one survey found that employees who spend part of their workweek in the office and the other part working remotely are actually more engaged and satisfied than those who work exclusively on-site or remotely. For those who do work remotely full-time, experts say their productivity depends on having both autonomy and structure, with well-designed communication systems to prevent remote employees from becoming isolated from their colleagues.