Forbes contributor Jacob Morgan made a strong case last week for increasing the practice of telecommuting. His reasoning was sound, practical and logical. But given that we human beings aren’t consistently sound, practical or logical, I believe that here are at least four good reasons we’ll always be attached in some way to a company office.
1. You really, really want to be around other people. You’re a social animal. Technology won’t change that. When you’re alone, you end up wasting most of your time on Facebook, or running off to do some shopping, or meeting friends for coffee, because of your congenital need to be around other people.
We’re creatures wired for community. As long as work is a society’s primary means of identity, we’ll want to physically congregate around our work community–otherwise, we’ll feel left out.
2. Telecommuting can be fine for productivity—but it’s not ideal for innovation. Isaac Kohane of Harvard Medical School documented the importance of the “watercooler effect.” As he’s argued, “Serendipity at the water cooler is likely to continue to be an important driver of impactful and original science.” The same principle applies to other forms of brainstorming, creativity and critical thinking.
John Sullivan, a Silicon Valley-based HR expert, has argued that “telecommuting unfortunately reduces innovation. And because innovation brings in much higher profits than the traditional goal of corporate efficiency, many firms are now learning the value of emphasizing innovation as a primary strategic business goal.”
Granted, Jacob Morgan made an excellent point in his argument against the traditional office. He said, “The reality is that even a small distance impacts employee communication and collaboration. Once employees are 200 feet away (or more) from each other, the chances of them talking to one another is virtually zero; you might as well have employees be hundreds of miles away.”
But the best solution isn’t more fiber optics and wireless networks, but rather spaces that strategically promote interaction. “Pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline even found that increasing interactions through open office designs can increase decision-making speed (which is essential in getting innovations to market) by as much as 45%,” Sullivan wrote.
My own alma mater and employer, the University of Southern California, played a shaping role in the Internet revolution. Yet it’s investing tens of millions of dollars in new facilities that will facilitate old-school interaction among students and faculty of different fields—because that’s where new ideas are bred. Similarly, Harvard’s Kohane told the New Yorker that “If you want people to work together effectively, these [his team’s] findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interaction.”
3. If you can’t convince the brainiacs at Google to telecommute, you’re not going to win this battle. No company is more data-driven than Google. And no company is more committed to using food and fun as forces of gravity to keep its staff on site.
Google’s algorithm-obsessed leaders have crunched the numbers—and each time they have decided that creating the best social environment is the best way to get the best people to do their best work.
Sullivan looks at the great innovators of the tech world and notices a pattern:
Google has determined that innovation comes from three distinct factors: discovery (i.e. learning), collaboration, and fun. Zappos, a non-tech firm, has eliminated most telecommuting because it also has learned the economic value of face-to-face interaction and fun (everyone leaves by the same door). Pixar is famous for its centralized bathrooms, because Steve Jobs knew the economic value of increasing serendipitous interactions.
4. Face-to-face is real. Nothing else is. We’re descended from organisms that spent hundreds of millions of years evolving their abilities to understand one another. eye-to-eye encounters were the means to this end. A few years of tech revolutions doesn’t immediately rewire this reality.
Ralph Frammolino, a media strategist for G.F.Bunting and formerly a Pulitzer-nominated reporter for the Los Angeles Times, spends a great deal of his time working from a home office. But he doesn’t kid himself: He believes the most important interactions happen face to face. “As a reporter, there’s just no replacement for being there in person,” Frammolino told me. In-person eye contact can build trust with a source, or give you reason to question him or her, in a way that emails or even phone calls can’t do. “Showing up also allows the other person to size you up, and ultimately that’s more important,” he said. “If the other person is comfortable, he or she will open up, which is what you want in the first place.”
Indeed, our businesses should be using technology to facilitate the human encounter, not to eliminate it. Why, then, do we need to rush to close down offices? The best organizations are building better offices, not fewer offices.
For many people, technology can nicely augment the office experience—but it won’t replace it. Telecommuting gives crucial flexibility for the single mother or father who needs to leave early to pick up a child, or a young worker who needs to go to an evening class.
Morgan reported, “the 2013 Regus Global Economic Indicator of 26,000 business managers across 90 countries revealed that 48% of them are now working remotely for at least half of their work-week.” But if managers worldwide are spending more time working remotely, I suspect that has less to do with them wanting to avoid other human beings and more to do with them feeling stuck working long evenings and longer weekends by phone, phablet, tablet and laptop.
The bottom line seems to be that, if most of us truly wanted to work from home all day and all week in our pajamas, we’d all be doing it by now.