drawing social network structureIn many organizations, knowledge workers are increasingly geographically distributed, either as part of a global organization, or as a result of work-from-home policies. Yet there remains a school of thought that a distributed workforce is less effective, and employees should be located in the same office to ensure maximum productivity. If this were true, it would be sad indictment on the advances in communication technology.

Yahoo’s announcement in February 2013 banning employees from working from home sparked a flurry of articles either praising or ridiculing the move. But it would be a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about the relevance of Yahoo’s policy to other organizations. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, repeatedly said that this was about what was best for Yahoo at the time. In subsequent comments in April, she highlighted an interesting dilemma.

“People are more productive when they’re alone. But they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

That very concisely sums up the challenge for the Business Communication Revolution. How do you maintain the level of productivity a worker has when they are alone without compromising collaboration and innovation?

Perhaps the mistake here is thinking in extremes – for most workers a blend of remote and co-located working is the most effective approach, with the balance between the two different for different companies. Indeed, the right balance may be different for one company at different times in the year.

It is also important to remember that many employees work remotely out of necessity. Sales teams can often be out of the office for several days at a time; consultants working at customers’ offices can be out for much longer periods. Both these groups need continuing access to the company’s collective knowledge in order to work effectively, and need to stay connected to the latest company news.

So whether you let people work from home or not, your company’s communication systems need to support remote workers, and not penalise them if their job requires them to be out of the office.

Many peoples’ first reaction to connecting remote workers is video conferencing. Yes, this can be helpful in simulating the more collaborative environment Marissa Mayer describes. Similarly, instant messaging and VOIP systems like Skype can give the feeling that you are connected to co-workers, even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. But it is important to remember that teams distributed across different timezones and continents also need to work together.  It is very hard to find an appropriate time of day for a team consisting of workers in North America, Asia and Europe hold a video conference without someone staying up very late. So our communication tools need to support both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration between remote workers.

Of course, email has always been a fairly effective tool for asynchronous communication, allowing people to respond when they are ready. But as discussed in What’s So Bad About Email Anyway? this benefit is often outweighed by email’s other failings. Enterprise social networks provide a better way of letting groups of people in different timezones collaborate asynchronously.

So an organization needs to have the right blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools in place to support remote workers and offices. Once these are in place, extending this to support people working from home is trivial. This shouldn’t be an excuse for home workers never to visit the office, but it should stop communication being used as a reason to prevent employees working from where they’ll be most productive.

This is part 12 of The Business Communication Revolution, a 15-part series on improving the efficiency of communication in business. You can continue reading the series on this blog, or at communication-revolution.biz.