Why face time in the office is irreplaceable

Richard Arvey says Yahoo may have good reason to implement a ban on remote working

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 3:11am

A recent worldwide memo sent to all staff at Yahoo announced a company-wide ban on "remote" working. "To become the absolute best place to work," it read, "communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side."

In our technology-rich wired world, why does "being there" still matter? While electronic communication offers many benefits - especially in terms of low financial cost - it also has drawbacks. Opportunities for distraction are great, meaning participants are often not as engaged as their colleagues might think (or their supervisors might hope).

More significantly, physical co-location has several positive features. Firstly, face-to-face interaction allows participants to observe both verbal and non-verbal behaviour, which are all important in building understanding and collaboration.

Electronic communications can be a minefield of potential misinterpretation. A short comment written in jest or simply for the sake of brevity can easily be misinterpreted.

Being physically in the same place also serves a primitive human need. As social creatures, we require contact with others, and isolation is harmful.

An often cited advantage of electronic communication is that it allows participants to respond at a time of their choosing and prioritise accordingly. However, this can also be detrimental to the speed and quality of decision-making.

Face-to-face relationships are important in building transparency and trust, and trust is an essential part of an effective business relationship. That's not to say trust cannot be built through electronic communication, but research suggests that it takes much longer.

There is also extensive research that face-to-face contact enables individuals to develop a clearer understanding of how they fit the firm and work as an important part of the corporate process.

Another benefit of working in physical proximity is the possibility of unintended, but potentially highly beneficial, consequences: sideline conversations that develop among individuals gathered in one place can be the source of breakthrough innovation.

That is not to say that electronic communication cannot complement face-to-face working to enhance communications and help lower overall business costs. Clearly, firms would do best to decide which is the optimum combination of both remote and co-located working for them.

Richard Arvey is professor and director of the Centre for Strategic Leadership at the National University of Singapore Business School. A version of this article was first published on the school's Think Business portal (thinkbusiness.nus.edu)