Can Teams Collaborate Effectively While Working Remotely?

nec-remote-workforce-telecommuting-technologyIt’s estimated that telecommuters will total 3.9 million people by 2016.The question remains though—can work-from-home teams collaborate effectively with the help of technology?

Telecommuting seems to be a business trend that thrived during and survived the recession. There’s been an abundance of news articles on this very topic since Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced almost two years ago that the company’s new policy would only allow telecommuting occasionally. Yahoo’s human resources chief, Jackie Reses, announced the telecommuting change in a memo, saying, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”

The indication here seems to be that collaborating and communicating from multiple locations and across technology doesn’t work nearly as well as in-person collaboration—a bold statement which many critics claimed was unfounded and misguided. With most businesses using some form of communications technology like Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC&C) that have applications and features like presence, unified messaging, and video collaboration that have been proven to make teams more efficient—the decision to re-route two decades of Yahoo and HR modernization and improvement seems like a giant step backwards.

The teleworker discussion seems to be a small piece of a much bigger conversation—whether or not technology actually brings people together, and how best to define the new workplace and teleworkers’ individual roles in it.

“No one would disagree that the U.S. work force is increasingly mobile,” said the Telework Research Network in a 2011 paper on the state of telecommuting. “But, beyond that broad statement, we know little about the rate of increase in mobility — how often people are out of the office, where they are, and what they’re doing. For that matter, there’s no agreed-upon method of defining who they are.”

The Challenges Facing the Remote Workforce

It’s clear that the remote workforce discussion was taking place long before Marissa Mayer and team entered it. And they certainly aren’t the only ones to question the effectiveness of a constantly remote work-force.

In an article by Gallup Business Journal author Steve Crabtree, Google’s Chief Internet evangelist Vint Cerf emphasizes the importance of frequent casual interactions between coworkers.

Tools like instant messaging and video collaboration can help create opportunities for these interactions for remote workers—provided of course that UC and communications solutions are evenly distributed and widely used throughout the given organization.

Dr. Cerf, one of Gallup’s senior scientists, is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet for his seminal work on the TCP/IP protocols that form its underlying architecture, and the networking tools he helped make possible now allow many people to do their jobs from almost anywhere.

Google has faced its own challenges with employees working together remotely. “‘We had people participating in teams, [and] they would almost never see each other face to face. Often they were in different time zones, which meant they had to work harder to stay in sync,’” Dr. Cerf said. “‘So we started recompiling groups to make them, if not co-located, at least within one or two time zones of one another so that it was more convenient to interact.’”

Many similar challenges are faced by organizations that have large telecommuting populations. As more workplaces become dispersed and reliant on remote workforces, more companies will experience the tension of helping employees work together effectively while allowing them to do their jobs from disparate locations.

Modesty is Key to Higher Telecommuting Success Rates

One of the top telecommuting questions that most people want answered is: “How does telecommuting affect employee engagement?” On the one hand, working remotely offers employees a measure of autonomy, helping them feel better equipped to do their jobs. On the other hand, employees must have positive, trusting relationships with their managers and coworkers to stay engaged, and such relationships become much more difficult to sustain with less face-to-face interaction.

Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report suggests that the ability to work remotely corresponds with higher engagement, but, primarily among those who spend less than 20% of their total working time doing so—a pattern that makes “intuitive sense,” according to Dr. Cerf.

Jennifer Glass, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, who has studied teleworking for two decades, said her research shows that much of what managers and professionals call telecommuting occurs after a 40-hour week spent in the office. These people check email, return calls and write reports from home, but in the evenings and weekends.

Flexibility is a remote work benefit that will elicit a positive response while it remains a benefit, but beyond that it becomes less useful. In terms of the limits to the utility of telecommuting, it seems that studies and statistics suggest that the strategy involved in managing in-office and remote work is as important, if not more so, than the tools used while telecommuting.

Solutions are found in Balance

Balance is needed between utilizing the advantages of online collaboration tools and the need for the personal and informal interactions that boost workplace morale/cohesion; a balance which depends on the nature of the job being done and specific situations.

In inclement weather or other crises, cloud computing services such as remote desktops, softphones that can be accessed from home or at work, and video collaboration tools can help organizations ensure that everyone continues working even if they cannot physically get into the office. The benefits in this situation are great, and often allow employers to keep employees safe without losing, what many times can end up being weeks of, productivity.

“The ability to set up a collaborative environment literally within seconds is an extraordinarily powerful tool,’ Dr. Cerf says, ‘as opposed to having to coordinate everybody’s calendar and waiting two weeks before we can all put our heads together [in the same room].’”

But it’s still just as important to interact directly with co-workers on a regular basis. According to Dr. Cerf, face-to-face conversations help “cross-pollinate” talent and creativity among varied workgroups and departments within an organization.

The Flexibility of Modern Communications

In the end, companies will have to devise policies that meet their own needs and values. As we mentioned before UC&C, video collaboration, presence, instant messaging etc., can help organization scale communications more appropriately to affordably allow telecommuting as needed/wanted.

But UC&C does a lot more than that. UC&C integrates real-time and regular communications with business processes and requirements based on presence capabilities, presenting a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices and media types. UC also supports each organization when managing various types of communications across multiple devices and applications, and across geographies, with personalized rules and policies, while integrating with back-office applications, systems and business processes.

UC&C can help you re-define what “remote work” means for your business by helping you eliminate many of the social issues typically associated with long-term work outside of the office. How? UC&C enables people to connect, communicate and collaborate seamlessly to improve business agility and results. These results include better user and group productivity, dynamic collaboration and simplified business processes—all goals that need to be met to keep remote workers connected to each other and the home office.