Companies move away from work-at-home arrangements, emphasizing communication, “water-cooler time”

Image result for Companies move away from work-at-home arrangements, emphasizing communication, “water-cooler time”Readers of this column know I believe that flexible work practices are the key to attracting and retaining great talent, and are subsequently the key to any business’s long-term success. Businesses would seem to agree, as flexibility has become a common practice among companies of all sizes.

More recently though, a shift has taken place and fewer big businesses are promoting full-time working from home. It started with Yahoo back in 2013, but now companies such as IBM, Honeywell, BofA, Aetna and Best Buy have ended or reduced remote-work arrangements.

The main reason seems to center around communication – teams needing better collaboration, companies needing to get closer to customers, and just old-fashioned relationship building.

In a world full of technical communication tools (GoToMeeting, Slack, Skype, FaceTime and Lifesize, just to name a few) and a society more technologically connected than it’s ever been, it seems companies are struggling with effective communication. A recent poll by Gallup showed that a surprising 70 percent of U.S. employees are not engaged at work, a startling statistic especially when considered alongside another finding: the McKinsey Global Institute found that productivity improves by 20 percent to 25 percent in organizations with connected employees.

Clearly, remote working isn’t all bad or all good, but what has come to light for many companies is that face-to-face communication and relationship building is a necessary part of doing business and creating happy and productive employees. While invaluable, electronic tools can help extend the time between those in-person encounters, but they do not replace 100 percent of them.

Employees need to connect and bond with each other. Good communication between business leaders, management and employees increases morale and establishes a level of trust, and happy employees are more efficient and productive. A study performed by Watson Wyatt found that businesses with effective communication practices were more than 50 percent more likely to report lower than average employee turnover levels.

I speak from experience. I was once part of a completely virtual organization with offices all over the country. On the plus side was the ultimate flexibility, but with that came some downside. We were disparate, which created a lack of work collaboration and inhibited strong personal relationship building. GoToMeetings and an annual retreat weren’t enough to build a cohesive company culture.

Certainly it is not just in-person communication that is important in today’s workplace, and clearly the responsibility for good communication lies on both the employer and employee. But one trend emerging from all this is an ever-greater emphasis on the importance of well-honed communication skills.

Every day, I see employers putting more stock in both written and oral communication skills in the hiring process. And in the recruiting process, how a candidate chooses to communicate with me tells me a lot about how they will approach communicating with a future employer. A 2013 employer survey conducted by Hart Research Associates showed 93 percent of employers consider good communication skills more important than a college graduate’s major. What used to be considered a soft skill is now mandatory for everyone from the top executives to the people on the shop floor.

So, how to balance this all?

Employers, make sure you are fostering your company’s culture with your remote employees. Develop team-building opportunities and make them accessible to those in the office and those outside. If you have monthly staff meetings, invite your remote employees to come. This may mean flying them in, or limiting the in-person time to a few times per year, but include them. Celebrate remote employees’ birthdays, anniversaries and accomplishments as a team. While they cannot enjoy cupcakes with the team, they can enjoy a gift card to a bakery or coffee shop.

Employees, be sure to engage in your organization beyond conference calls, webinars, emails and video chats. Suggest meet-ups, do team activities when possible, share your personal life — when you cannot walk by someone’s desk and chat with them, you have to think more broadly and be more proactive.

So while I strongly believe that remote work has a place in modern work culture, I also believe in the importance of face-to-face “water cooler” time. There is a place for it all. We may have our own “eco-friendly, stay-cold water bottle” at our desks, but gathering around a communal ‘water cooler’ for one-on-one communication, team bonding and employee engagement is an art that cannot and should not be lost.