Today is Monday and I’m working from home for a couple reasons. One: my higher up is at Burning Man (hey Parker!), and when the cat’s away the mice will play…at home. Two: I try to take a break from the office at least once a work week anyway. I love face time with my colleagues and being in the Mindjet environment does wonders for my morale, but at the end of the day I can think clearer and am more productive when I’m by myself. It’s just how I operate.
The luxury that is working remotely is just one of a few practices that are coming to define my generation of white-collar workers (Gen Y), and for the majority of our predecessors that change presents a significant challenge. In this particular case, it’s a question of engagement. How is it feasible for a person who isn’t physically present to be more engaged with a task or team than someone who is?
Enter Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting Group, who last week wrote an article in Harvard Business Review that makes a case for this very argument.
We’ll start with some statistics. An investment firm that Edinger recently worked with found, after reviewing the results of a 360-degree feedback process, that people who work remotely are more engaged, more committed to their work, and rate their leaders higher than those who work from the office.
“While the differences were not enormous (a couple of tenths of a point in both categories), they were enough to provoke some interesting speculations as to why this might be happening,” he writes just before introducing four main ideas. Summed up, they are:
1. Proximity can be too convenient: Edinger admits to having worked with leaders who “sit in the same office with those they manage but go for weeks without having any substantive face-time with them.”
If you work in an office, ask yourself how often you send e-mails to colleagues that are sitting less than fifty feet away. Chances are, it’s pretty often (I admittedly do this at least once a day). Face-time is undeniably valuable, but we often lose sight of that value in the face of convenient technology.
2. Absence makes the connection fonder: That said, working remotely can remind us of how important it is to communicate. “Most leaders I work with make an extra effort to stay connected to those they don’t ordinarily run into,” writes Edinger. “…What’s more, because they have to make an effort to make contact, these leaders can be much more concentrated in their attention to each person and tend to be more conscious of the way they express their authority.”
3. Learning collaboration tools becomes a must: Collaboration is no easy task, and we’re slowly but surely figuring out why. One main roadblock is different levels of understanding when it comes to the tools that are supposed to help enable teamwork. We could try to increase awareness around the importance of the on-boarding process, but Etinger has a better idea: “Because…far-flung teams have to use videoconferencing, instant messaging, e-mail, voicemail, and yes, the telephone, to make contact, they become proficient in multiple forms of communication, an advantage…that their traditional counterparts could well develop but not so automatically.”
(It’s kind of like explaining swimming to someone vs. tossing them in a pool.)
4. Time spent together is more valuable: Finally, the importance of time together is more apparent when it’s not experienced on a day-to-day basis. That makes filtering out distractions a more urgent focus, and focus in general, more accurate.
Work: An Activity, Not a Place
While learning to cooperate across generations will always be important, it would also do us well to acknowledge the upcoming shifts in majority. By the end of this decade, the balance of U.S. employees will flip from approximately 50 percent Baby Boomers and 25 percent Generation Y workers to 25 percent Baby Boomers and 50 percent Generation Y workers, according to a 2010 report from Knoll, a workplace furnishing company.
That’s massive, and that’s soon.
As this shift happens over the next few years, I think the most important thing we can do is not respond by switching from one extreme to the other. For example (and to the great dismay of introverts), a countless number of companies have tossed the personal office/cubicle, opting instead for bullpen-style work spaces. But why not just provide both?
Circling back to my own experience, I absolutely love working in the same space as everyone else. The face-to-face time and open layout of the Mindjet office makes us all feel like we’re part of a family as opposed to a hierarchy, and that makes me personally want to be at work. It makes me want to turn out my very best. But I simply can’t if that’s my only environment. So sometimes I work at home. It’s as simple as that.
Even though Edinger’s argument is a strong one, I think we’ll find that the real stance of our time is one of choice. Adapting and thriving in this new world of work will simply be about letting people operate the way they operate best. And that’s pretty cool.