Employees around the world yearn for freedom and flexibility. The most common form of flexibility that companies offer is the ability to work remote. In a new study by my firm and Virgin Pulse, we found that a third of employees globally work remote always or very often. Compared to a decade ago, the number of remote workers has increased by 115%. I’ve personally worked from home for almost eight years and have benefitted from the independence, autonomy, and five-second commute time.
Despite these benefits, I often feel lonely, isolated, and less engaged with my team, since I rarely see them face-to-face and am confined to a 500-square-foot apartment. After interviewing over 2,000 employees and managers globally, our study discovered two-thirds of remote workers aren’t engaged and over a third never get any face-time with their team—yet over 40% said it would help build deeper relationships.
The study also found that remote workers are much less likely to stay at their company long-term. Only 5% always or very often see themselves working at their company for their entire career, compared to almost a third that never work remotely. When you don’t see or hear your colleagues over a long period of time, you can become less committed to your team and organization — and start looking for your next opportunity — since no one is looking over your shoulder while you job search.
While the population of remote workers is growing, some companies are simultaneously rolling back their remote work programs and forcing their employees to be at the office everyday with no exceptions. Companies that have already mandated this include Yahoo!, Best Buy, HP, Reddit, IBM, and Honeywell. They agree that in-person collaboration fosters teamwork, idea-sharing and quicker decision making. They believe that it’s the best way to build a strong culture, increase engagement, and fuel work relationships.
Kiah Erlich, Director, a senior director at Honeywell told me: “When our company eliminated working from home several months ago, it was disappointing and not fun as a manager to explain to some of my permanently remote employees. But as a leader who craves human interaction, it has been one of the greatest things we’ve done. People are actually in the office now. What once was a painful conference call is now a collaborative white-boarding session. Instead of more emails, people get out of their chair and walk over to my office. It is a beautiful thing to see, and it has not only improved productivity but brought the team closer together.” Leaders want their employees to have a similar experience has because it’s good for the culture and business.
Instead of saving money by promoting remote work, many companies are investing money in their office designs. A well-designed office, with an assortment of meeting spaces, gives employees the flexibility they desire but in a collaborative environment. Apple is spending about $5 billion for a 2.8 million square-foot office space that accommodates about 12,000 employees. Amazon will also spend $5 billion on their new headquarters to employ 50,000 people, and Zurich North America spent $333 million for a 783,000 square foot office for 3,000 employees. Clearly, design matters to these companies; they want a place where employees can freely interact to create breakthrough ideas.
These companies understand that employees’ proximity to each other matters. The closer we sit to our colleagues, the more likely we will interact with them and form the relationships that lead to long-term team commitment. Back in 1977, MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen studied the communication patterns among both scientists and engineers and found that the further apart their desks were, the less likely they were to communicate. If they were 30 meters or further from each other, the likelihood of regular communication was zero. Mike Maxwell, a senior category leader at Whirlpool, says: “Face-to-face meetings give you the proximity and presence that make collaboration more effective. I am also better able to read the room and pick up on the unsaid words. Reading the room is critical for knowing when things need further explaining or when to drop something that isn’t going over well.”
Aside from lacking proximity, there are often times a lag in communications with a remote workforce. Getting everyone on the same page, on the same call and in the same mindset is challenging when people aren’t located in the same place. “Whenever there’s a gap in communication across a remote and dispersed workforce, people fill that void with their own assumptions,” says Dr. Rajiv Kumar, president and chief medical officer at Virgin Pulse— assumptions that can result in work conflicts.
Although research shows that remote workers are more productive, and they’ll tell you that they enjoy the flexibility, they typically won’t reveal how isolated they are. Some companies have gone to extremes to either force everyone into the office or enable all employees to work remote, but very often, meeting in the middle is best. Give them the flexibility at the office, while an option to work remote part-time based on their position and needs. They need face-time even if they won’t admit it, and companies need an engaged workforce in order to retain talent and compete in the global economy.