Thinking of Making the Jump to a Remote Office? Look Before You Leap.

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Why Being In The Same Room Can’t Be Duplicated

I’ve read the headlines for years about the coming age of the remote workplace.  It keeps cars off of congested roads, gives overburdened workers flexibility, and provides work-life balance to a generation that craves it.  What could possibly go wrong?  As it turns out, lots of things can and do go wrong.

Don’t misinterpret me, I love the technology that enables the remote office.  E-mail and cell phones have been around for years, but recent advances in cloud computing and video-conferencing make physical preference pretty negligible from a technical perspective.  But I’ve found that using these technology tools for getting real work done are no substitute for being in the same place at the same time with my team.

But don’t take it from me.  Take it from some of the world’s leading companies that, ironically, are steeped in technology.  Google is one example of a company that rarely allows its 70,000+ employees to work remotely.  As outlined in the recent book How Google Works, former CEO and current Chairman of Alphabet Eric Schmidt strongly articulates the company’s belief that having people in the office is better than remote work.  This, from a company that provides software to enable remote work.

Or how about Apple?  The company recently capped off an estimated $5 Billion project to build its own headquarters.  Talk about making a bet on the notion of being together!

And just this year, IBM, long considered a pioneer in the concept of remote work, announced that it was calling its team back to the office, presumably because of falling profits and declining collaboration.  Companies like IBM don’t take policy changes like this lightly and one can only assume that this business decision is rooted in data analysis, research, and thorough decision-making.

As a leader, I’m a believer in physically standing shoulder to shoulder with one another as we work through each day’s challenges.  Impromptu idea sharing, meetings, and in-passing conversation help us to not only fill the communication gaps, but to thrive.  Beyond that, though, I’m a big believer in the non-verbal communication that lives at the heart of management and leadership.  While there is debate about how much of a team’s communication is verbal versus non-verbal, I’m certain that both are important.  I can sense when an employee is frustrated, stuck, or having a bad week just by observing his facial expressions, demeanor, and posture.  That doesn’t come through in an e-mail or Slack message.

Beyond preserving the status quo, I’m always looking for ways to both provide a challenging and enriching work environment for my team and bring out the best in each individual at all times.  Recent research suggests that the number of high-quality connections at work is declining for the workplace at large.  And a recent piece in the Harvard Business Review has me feeling like remote work is part of the culprit.  Without strong, meaningful connections in a person’s work-day, the odds of them thriving, being connected to a greater purpose, and feeling a sense of belonging are not great.  A physical workplace sets the stage for all of those things.

To reiterate the point, I’m bullish on technology, especially when I (or one of my teammates) has to travel.  But I believe that remote work should be the exception, not the rule.

And if these notions aren’t enough, consider my parting thought.  I mean, how many of a sports team’s achievements would have been possible without a subtle signal, glance, or gesture from one teammate to another?  Without them, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen may very well have never connected on a single alley-oop!  Or imagine how a jazz trio (a type of team in its own right) might ever exist without being in the same room.

Great teams, great products, great art, and great people are created within the envelope of a physical space where improvisation, communication, and interdependence can thrive.  And my entire business, small-business real estate lending, is based upon the notion that investing in physical spaces for small businesses pays off time after time.   Before you leap too quickly on the trend of all-remote work, be sure you’re not discarding perhaps your greatest asset–team chemistry.

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