Virtual Work or Face to Face? Here’s Why We Really Need Both

Marissa Mayer’s decision to revoke Yahoo’s remote work policy in March of 2013 led to an explosion of criticism and stirred a huge debate about two workplace models: virtual/remote and office/face-to-face (F2F). Let’s talk about it.

Virtual/remote work

According to Forrester Research, today more than 34 million U.S. adults work remotely at least occasionally. Fueled by better collaboration tools, and growing management experience, Forrester says that U.S. remote working ranks will swell to 63 million by 2016.

We all know the benefits of working virtually: reduced commute times, increased productivity, higher levels of employee motivation and work satisfaction and better work/life balance. According to Link Resources, working remotely can increase employee productivity by up to 20 percent — which impacts the bottom line.

New focus on innovation

There is new evidence, however, that the CEOs’ priorities are changing in important ways. According to a survey of 1,500 CEOs conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value creativity — not operational effectiveness — is the key business goal now.

For hundreds of years, the goal of any business was to be productive and efficient. Now, innovation trumps productivity.

Based on revenue and profit-per-employee calculations, it appears that a focus on innovation may produce up to 2 to 15 times the amounts produced by firms that still focus on productivity.

F2F/office work

Bill Gates has said that great ideas don’t appear in isolation. Creativity is not seen so much seen in individuals working alone as it is seen in groups of people solving problems together.

As Steven Johnson noted in Where Good Ideas Come From, we tend to incorrectly picture innovation as “eureka moments” when exceptional individuals experience a sudden flash of insight when alone.

Here are some examples of what companies are doing to encourage employees whose work is innovative to work at the office:

  • Facebook plans to erect an apartment development minutes from headquarters. They’re doing this as a result of employees’ inability to afford the rents close to the office. The complex will house 394 units including studio apartments and three-bedroom apartments. Why are they doing this? They’re doing it in order to make it easy for employees whose work is mainly creative to work at the office.
  • Google has an extraordinary focus on increasing collaboration between employees from different functions. It is so conscious about designing its workplaces to maximize collaboration that it even tracks the time spent by employees in the café lines to maximize collaboration.
  • When the work day finally comes to an end, Google, Facebook, Apple, the video-game maker Electronic Arts, Yahoo, and the other big Silicon Valley companies have their own way of taking employees home. They operate huge fleets of private luxury buses that shuttle back and forth between the Valley and San Francisco, where increasing numbers of techies prefer to live. Google alone transports upwards of 3,000 employees a day on its bus service.

Hybrid model

This may cause some of you to gasp, but working remotely is NOT an entitlement. We tend to lose sight of that in our effort to bolster engagement, but it’s true. 

Is engagement important? Yes, but it’s doesn’t take first place over a company’s business plan, strategy or priorities.

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Like most everything else, there is no “one size fits all” approach to go by. There is no “best practice.” It’s “company unique.”

Determining the right mix between virtual and F2F is the difficult part. Uniformity across the company would be the simple approach and would treat everyone the same. But work isn’t that simple.

Figuring out the proper mix requires a more systematic approach. Some departments/work groups need to be on site due to the innovative work they do. Other groups need to focus more on productivity/efficiency.

The end result is a “hybrid.” Some employees may be allowed to work remotely because the work they do lends itself to independent work that is mostly done via phone and computer, and the focus is on volume. Other employees need to work F2F to foster the kind of collaboration that is so necessary for innovation.

There’s no “best” approach or model

To tout virtual work as the best or only workplace approach is a fallacy. As HR people, we need to be careful about calling working remotely “the future of work.” Such a grand, sweeping statement implies that it’s the only workplace solution.

In reality, there is enough data to indicate that people are more productive when working remote … but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. And that says that both options — a hybrid model — are needed.

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.

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4 Comments on “Virtual Work or Face to Face? Here’s Why We Really Need Both

  1. As someone who works remotely for a virtual company, I know intuitively that our F2F via Skype or Google works just as well. We are located across the US and our Team works collaboratively and well together via virtual means. We are also able to do instant conference calls or FaceTime to allow for F2F meetings. While we may not be physically in the same space, our work environs allows us to be creative, productive and collaborative. Just my own point of view.

  2. You are absolutely right about understanding the nature of the work first; then determining the right model. I work for a virtual company and our professionals are around the globe. It works well for us. However, it’s not for everyone or every situation. It requires discipline not only to be individually productive, but discipline to collaborate and work as a team. One of our clients commented that initially he was concerned about this. However, now tells us that he has never worked with a group of people who were a tighter, more cohesive team than ours. Two lessons from this: 1) it has to fit the industry culture and job design (we are a learning solutions company) and 2) you have to make an effort to collaborate and build teams.

  3. Hi Jacque, brilliant insights in the article, it was great reading it. It resounds with my own personal experience on both accounts – F2F as well as virtual working arrangements. I completely agree with you that a hybrid model, which is essentially derived from the role requirement and nature of the job, is probably a better approach than to state categorically that virtual workplaces is the future. In terms of my own roles I have seen that a collaborative F2F approach worked very well for me while I was in advisory roles, managing clients, projects and teams. It did help me to have a participative solutioning process, but when I was in a research or knowledge development role, virtual working helped to channelize my thoughts in a much better.

  4. I’d agree with Amy – modern communication technologies allow collaboration at the
    same level as F2F. Of course, there are jobs and many of them, which can’t be
    done remotely. But when we talk about campuses – this is something, which
    already happened in the history, just not many know about that. Soviet Union
    was built by Vladimir Lenin, one of the most consistent followers of Frederick
    Taylor as a big corporation, where scientists were living in “science towns”
    built around a complex, which could have a factory, scientific research
    institute and all the necessary infrastructure, like schools, hospitals, shops
    etc. There were also buildings and districts for cultural employees and
    performers, artists, university professors, engineers, political and party leaders,
    doctors etc. Not only the people were managed at their working places, but
    putting them into groups by their occupation, i.e. by their department in the
    “big corporation”, which Soviet Union was, (as there was no branding and no
    competition in the modern sense among the representatives of the same industry)
    allowed the leaders to have a much greater and deeper control on the whole
    society. The idea of campuses reminds me exactly of the Soviet system, amazing
    that after so many years of fighting with communism western world is coming to
    these models, when corporate culture and corporate values become much more an
    ideology rather then adopted norms of work and behavior at your working place.

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