Creative professionals can't stop arguing about the pros and cons of telecommuting. But what does the research say?
The business case for face time is that it promotes more creativity, innovation, collaboration--in one study, even more job satisfaction. That 2010 finding, from the MIT Media Lab, tracked the members of a marketing division of a German bank using email logs, daily surveys, and even wearable sensors as they walked around the office. The workers who talked to each other more were much more satisfied with their jobs, while email exchanges had no such effect.
There's lots of evidence for the power of proximity. Researchers say that F2F interactions build up trust. This leads to the exchanging of "tacit" knowledge, the type of information you would never post on Twitter or write in an email, either because it's incriminating or simply too subtle--like the fact that the CEO is on edge today, or that your new marketing proposal is dying a slow death. It also increases the chances of your getting "timely" knowledge, which is of course the best kind. And it enhances the "co-production" of knowledge--i.e., people putting their heads together and coming up with new ideas.
What about the benefits to the business of working from home? Sadly, several reviews of literature--encompassing many, many studies--have concluded that there aren't many, at least not to companies as a whole. "The evidence fails to demonstrate a business case for the use of flexible work arrangements," or in the words of another review "there is insufficient evidence to support the notion that work-life practices enhance performance."
Individually, telecommuters may work harder. In one study, they seemed to were more committed to their jobs and the organization, and more available at all hours. Another study showed that using email enabled more multitasking, but with "diminishing marginal returns."
But the debate doesn't end there. Researchers keep looking for evidence of the connection between telecommuting and performance precisely because best of breed companies continue to offer flexible work arrangements. They do it for the advantages of recruiting the best talent and keeping them happy, and evolving technology continues to offer workarounds to the limitations of online collaboration.
Besides, even if companies had the power to force people into the office 80 hours a week, or seduce them in with free food and gyms and massages, you don't just want your employees having face-to-face contact with each other.
This explains why in the age of the Internet, urbanization is only increasing, and everyone is constantly flying across the country to hang out at conferences, meetups, and bar camps with folks they previously only knew on Twitter, then going back to interacting with them online.
One researcher, Harald Bathelt at the University of Toronto, specializes in the field of so-called "economic geography." He says the modern hybrid geographic slalom, where you Skype into the all-hands meeting from Schipol Airport before flying to New Delhi to shake hands with suppliers and then to Long Beach to hobnob with potential investors while coordinating with your assistant on Gchat, generates both "local buzz" and "global buzz." He argues that these temporary meetings can do away with the need for permanent, and costly, co-location.
"There are no pre-determined optimal spatial and organizational configurations for economic interaction; actual practices are highly contingent." In other words, we're all figuring this out as we go along.
[Image: Flickr user Charlene McBride]