Does Remote Work Hinder Innovation?

Two experts debate the issue.

By Diane Gherson and Kirsty Russell October 26, 2017
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 Yes. Quick decision-making and innovation require team members to work in the same physical space.

There was a time when many of us believed work could be done well from anywhere. The rise of the Internet, e-mail and work-sharing platforms made it possible. 

In fact, IBM, as an early adopter of telework, forever changed the business landscape by investing in tools that permitted full-time remote opportunities. The distributed work design meant that each employee added value as projects were passed efficiently from one stage to the next. An important benefit was diversity: Fewer women dropped out of the workforce as they were better able to juggle child care pickups. And more employees could move to locations away from the office with lower costs of living. 

The downside? Over-reliance on teleconferences, slower decision-making and less experimentation. 

With the urgent need for speed, innovation and responsiveness to the end-user in the digital era, companies are now experiencing a demand for collaboration at an unprecedented scale. In response, they are choosing to use the agile work method, in which face-to-face communication enhances continuous iteration. 

IBM is one such company. Over the last few years, we have moved away from full-time telecommuting for many roles. We recently asked about 5,000 North American employees who were working from home—in development, design, marketing and product management, as well as recruiting—to join their colleagues in labs and offices. The vast majority have opted to do so. In fact, less than 20 percent of our employees now work from home in North America. (The teams in our global offices have traditionally worked together onsite.)

We’ve embraced agile onsite work for everything from software development to the C-suite. We have supported this decision by making a significant investment in tools, training some 160,000 employees in agile and design thinking, and modernized workspaces to align with how digital work actually gets done. Employees are coming together to co-create with colleagues, clients and universities, crossing traditional functional lines to achieve as much as a 30 percent quicker time to market on key projects. We’ve also reduced hiring time in recruitment to 45 days from 85 days, while doubling the satisfaction of hiring managers. 

Working this way is encouraging trust and experimentation, not to mention the learning that happens as a result of chance encounters between employees around the office. It’s helping to eliminate duplication of effort and reduce decision-making time. For example, the marketing function has benefited from a real-time refinement of its tactics, resulting from minute-by-minute analytics and immediate in-person feedback. 

With new employees entering our workforce, co-location provides a better learning environment. Internal studies show that teams sharing the same space are more engaged than those working remotely. 

IBM remains firmly committed to the practices that are so important to recruiting and retaining a contemporary and diverse workforce, such as permitting flexible hours and allowing remote work to accommodate nonroutine home and family responsibilities. The need for flexibility is here to stay, and we have the tools to make it seamless. 

Has the era of remote work ended? Only for some jobs. After all, for those in many professions, such as nurses and firefighters, it was never suitable. We’re simply seeing more work shift into this category, especially in environments of uncertainty and volatility, where speed and innovation count more than process efficiency.

Diane Gherson is chief human resource officer at IBM in Armonk, N.Y. 

 No. Innovation happens when leaders trust employees to decide how to get their work done.

Working remotely, some or all of the time, has always been high on the list of employee engagement and retention drivers. It allows people to avoid time-consuming commutes and deal with important issues in their personal lives while still getting their jobs done. Engaged employees are more likely to contribute to a company’s strategic goals than their disengaged counterparts.

In a recent Gallup survey, 37 percent of 15,604 U.S. employees said they would change jobs if they were offered a role that allowed them to work where they want at least part of the time.

Other Gallup research has found that remote work is on the upswing. In 2016, 43 percent of employees worked offsite at least some of the time. And 31 percent were spending 80 percent of their time working outside the office, up from 24 percent just four years earlier, in 2012.

I work for Logitech, a global company founded on the belief that tapping into talent—wherever we may find it—drives competitive advantage. 

This approach allows us to draw on diverse populations from all over the world that have a keen understanding of their local markets. 

Our engineers, designers and business teams collaborate across Asia, Europe and the Americas. For that to happen, someone will always be operating out of “standard hours” and working from home. Whether they’re “in early” or “on late” to deal with time zone differences, operating remotely just makes sense.

Moreover, while collaboration can certainly drive innovation, so too can time alone. The open office is a fact of life for many, and it brings with it both the advantages and drawbacks of togetherness. 

Giving workers the flexibility to get away and think quietly without interruption is invaluable. That’s something that the creative freelancers driving the robust “gig economy” have already figured out. 

Technological advances have also made it easier for workers to be productive when they are away from the office. At Logitech, we not only develop these tools, but we also rely on them day in and day out. More than 95 percent of our employees participate in videoconferences every day. Videoconferencing and other cloud services make collaboration easier and more akin to “being in the room.” Seeing people face-to-virtual-face helps us to better understand their opinions and emotions. Digital whiteboards facilitate brainstorming, and remote breakout rooms and interactive polling can create further opportunities to connect and collaborate. 

Ultimately, however, it is a company’s culture that will determine if remote work hinders or helps its business. In 2016, we engaged more than 90 percent of our employees in group discussions about the type of culture needed to drive innovation and growth. They told us the defining factors for such an environment were trust, flexible work hours, supportive leaders and a diverse workforce.

When leaders focus on outcomes and trust their employees, remote work can boost innovation. We don’t have any formal policies on telecommuting because the practice is embedded in our core beliefs and exercised through agreements based on what helps both the business and employees. Many teams build in accountability by planning remote work periods in advance. 

If you don’t have that kind of culture, maybe remote working hinders collaboration and innovation. But when you do, it helps immensely. 

Kirsty Russell is head of people and culture at Logitech, based in Palo Alto, Calif., but she works remotely most of the time.


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