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Remote work doesn’t isolate people—it actually drives deeper human connection

Dan Schawbel

When companies go through business transformations, bring on new leadership or become dysfunctional, they tend to make big decisions that impact their workforce. Companies that had previously embraced telecommuting, such as Yahoo, Best Buy and Reddit, had changed their policies to force every employee to work at the corporate office. This week, IBM joins them by banning remote work for their US marketing department, with plans to expand the policy in the future.

IBM believes that having their entire workforce in a single office can allow for easier supervision, stronger culture, deeper work relationships, and more creative thinking. While they may have a good business justification and intent, employees around the world desire flexibility, which research proves can have many positive outcomes to engagement, productivity, and wellbeing.

There has always been a stigma attached to telecommuting. It’s typically related to the many potential distractions that could come with working from home. In a new global study of over 25,000 employees, in partnership with Polycom, my firm found that 62% of remote workers fear that other employees don’t think they are working as hard as them.

When I first started working from home back in 2010, my peers thought I was watching TV, playing video games and sleeping instead of doing work. People who have never worked from home or are easily distracted have an image in their head that we are lazy, socially awkward, and unhappy. Since you don’t have the same level of accountability and intimacy with your team, you are perceived as being disconnected and less valuable. In fact, the opposite is true.

While my parents were never given the opportunity or capability to work remote, nearly three out of four employees in our study said their company offers them the option, and 32% regularly telecommute. The ability to work remote became viable with the emergence of collaborative technology tools that allow for seamless communication through video conferencing, document sharing, and instant messaging. Despite the stigma that still exists in our society, these tools are actually motivating workers to pick up the phone, seek face time and create lasting bonds. The study found that 98% of employees say that collaborative technologies make it easier to build relationships with co-workers. Nearly half of them pick up the phone more regularly after using the technology remotely. In other words, we feel like we have to be even more connected with our teams precisely because we aren’t in the same office as them.

As human beings, we all have the innate desire to have emotional connections with others. This plays out in the workplace as well. While collaborative tools have made us feel closer to our colleagues, they have also driven us to have more calls and office visits because we desire these connections. Employees who go to their office regularly sometimes feel isolated and don’t make time for conversations. For instance, they may choose to have a working lunch at their desk instead of asking their manager to lunch. When you work from home, if you want to fulfill the basic human desire for contact, you have to reach out to others to grab coffee or lunch, or pick up the phone for a chat, since, by default, no one is around.

Finally, working from home allows us to have more freedom to spend time with our friends and family, as we integrate those relationships into our broader workday. Our research also found that 70% of employees polled feel telecommuting gives them more control over their work life balance and 38% are able to care for their children.

While we may not see our co-workers everyday, our desire to be around others still exists. Telecommuting enables us to invest more in the relationships that make us happy and fulfilled. With more and more employees working remote each year, it’s critical that we use technology to facilitate meaningful conversations instead of relying on it as a single solution to remote communication.

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