Some companies are walking back their remote work policies – here’s why your organization might be thinking about it, too

By now, we’re all familiar with the mantra of “Working remotely is the future.” Videoconferencing apps like Skype, instant messengers such as WhatsApp and collaborative platforms including Slack have invaded our daily lives, keeping us hyper-connected and enabling us to work from anywhere. This is reducing our levels of fatigue and stress – or is it?

Despite increasing employer acceptance of having certain employees work from remote locations, major corporations including Yahoo and IBM have recently walked back remote work policies to bring their employees back into the office. For some employees who previously worked remotely, moving forward they will only be able to do so occasionally; for other

s, they are now only authorized to work remotely one day per week.

Some companies have concluded that making the office an attractive place for employees to be is crucial to the success of the company, and are investing in their workspaces accordingly. These investments usually involve designing offices to encourage comfort, collaboration and a sense of well-being. One stark example of a policy that encourages employees to work from the office, Facebook has decided to offer financial incentives to employees who move closer to the company’s offices. It’s not hard to imagine why.

In light of this trend, let’s explore a few of the main reasons behind some organizations’ return to office-centric employee policies.

Working remotely: popular… but risky?

Research shows that working remotely does indeed improve individual productivity. This is especially true when the employee’s tasks are well-defined, transactional or repetitive, and don’t require much interaction with other employees. Employees who occasionally work remotely also demonstrate a higher level of mental engagement with their work, proving that flexibility in working methods and locations are major contributors to employee productivity and health.

This said, remote work doesn’t entirely cure the deeper problem of weak employee engagement. It can be argued that managers have a hard time keeping employees engaged across digital platforms and across distances; sometimes, managers themselves aren’t online. In these cases managers can lose contact with employees, a situation that can become a problem if one or more employees are working remotely.

Remote work changes the nature of work, but some managers haven’t updated their management style to adapt to employees who work remotely. These days, managers have to do more than simply approve timesheets, ensure employee productivity and conformity with rules: they must also bring a sense of purpose to the workplace. They need to grant their employees an appropriate level of responsibility and support their individual growth in order to increase their ability to operate autonomously.

Often, remote work can create a ‘relationship gap’. Informal aspects of office work, such as chance conversations and spontaneous meetings, foster a shared experience and are arguably more difficult to replicate online. Some people believe that complex or politically sensitive work-related issues are much more difficult, if not impossible, to solve using distance-communication technology.

The benefits of shared, real-world workspaces

Across all sectors of industry, the most agile companies are innovating, creating, and developing new solutions more quickly than ever before. To get the most out of an organization’s collective intelligence, many companies are now facilitating meetings of employee minds by creating welcoming, multi-functional spaces meant to encourage proximity, spontaneous discussion, and to streamline decision-making. The fruits of collaborations realized as a result of this approach that brings together different departments, experts, partners and clients can be impressive – and also achieved in record time.

With people’s attention spread thin across many different communication platforms, it could be said that nurturing the collective concentration of a group may lead to deeply insightful work and more thoughtful decision-making.

Work that demands collaboration is one of the main factors driving organizations to reinvest in workspaces and re-prioritize having team members work together in the same space. Often, these efforts include organizing employee social events, training and educational opportunities, and group problem solving initiatives. Ideation and co-creation opportunities are also encouraged. Taken as a whole, such activities promote interaction, engagement and the opportunity to listen to colleagues before taking action to resolve a problem.

Above all, a team that shares a workspace may be able to develop a certain work-related confidence that can lead to exceptional results. They can communicate non-verbally and reveal more about their personalities, actions that some believe can lead to a higher level of collective performance, and speak more openly about their emotions and the challenges they face in their job. The more complex and interdependent a company’s projects are, the more a shared workspace can galvanize a team and improve cross-team efforts. Think about it: Have you ever seen a team of NASA engineers working remotely to coordinate a mission to the moon?

When IBM or Yahoo pulls their employees back to collaborative workspaces, the intention is to expand the cognitive, creative, and collaborative dimensions of employees’ work. Another reason is to rediscover the purpose of the meeting, with a focus on mutual attention and a relational experience.

In addition to these reasons, when employees are asked what contributes to a positive work experience, a feeling that they are part of a team is a major factor in their satisfaction at work. For employees, having clear objectives, a sense that they are using their skills in a useful manner and tackling interesting work-related challenges all contribute to a positive feeling about one’s work. Finally, feeling good about one’s work can stimulate employees to do even better. Just imagine what kind of an impact this can have for their employer.

Remote work is only one part of the future of work

It’s clear that by offering the possibility of remote work and a flexible working schedule, employers increase their odds of attracting top talent. These working arrangements are also greatly appreciated by many of us. But regardless of whether or not an employee works remotely, the fundamental social nature of work requires employers to provide, above all else, inspiring leadership, the best available tools, quality relationships and a sense of purpose for all employees.

The more distant yet hyper-connected our workplaces become, the more important it is to remember that we are all still human.

Jean-Baptiste Audrerie

Jean-Baptiste Audrerie, M.B.A. is an organizational psychologist and executive counselor with IBM Talent Management and Watson Talent for Canada and the Caribbean. He also writes at, a blog about trends in human resources. Jean-Baptiste helps IBM clients make the transition to digital human resources solutions. He helps them optimize their processes to improve their attraction, engagement and development of talent.

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