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Why Are Companies Ending Remote Work?

Dana Wilkie


With research suggesting that companies can save money, boost morale and attract top candidates by offering work-at-home options, why are some employers calling their telecommuters back into the main office?

The Bank of New York Mellon Corp. was the latest organization to make headlines when it told staff in November that it might reduce their ability to work from home. After the bank's employees expressed outrage, however, the company hit pause on its plan. 

The bank's announcement followed decisions by other companies—IBM, Yahoo, Aetna and Best Buy among them—that they, too, would require those working from home to return to a main office or worksite.

There seem to be a few theories for this change of heart about remote work: 

  • Employers allow people to work remotely without giving them the proper training or resources to do so productively. 
  • Supervisors—untrained on how to properly manage and monitor remote workers—find it easier to manage someone face-to-face. 
  • Some supervisors—perhaps because they feel they must be in control or don't trust their workers—are uncomfortable having employees work offsite. 
  • Employers find that remote workers—and the teams with which they work—aren't as productive as when they're onsite. 

Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York City-based HR executive network and research firm, subscribes largely to the first and second theories. 

For instance, remote workers often aren't taught how to set up a teleconference or video call. Or a remote worker may not know the best way to alert colleagues that he or she is in a meeting and can't be disturbed. 

"Often, working at home is [allowed] because workers are demanding it, but, with no training for managers or employees, companies discontinue it and say it's not working for them," Meister said. 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

Collaborating Remotely Can Be Hard

Judith Olson, a distance-work expert and professor at the University of California Irvine (UCI), subscribes in part to the first two theories. But her research and that of others seem to substantiate that proximity boosts productivity, especially in industries that rely on workers collaborating with one another. 

In their research published in 2000, Olson and her husband and UCI colleague, Gary Olson, found that those most likely to succeed at working remotely are people who have worked with others at the main worksite before, have similar work styles, like one another, have access to high-end technology that helps them collaborate, and are skilled at using that technology. 

But a situation in which all these factors are present is rare, the researchers found. And if some of these factors are missing, it creates "strain on the relationships among teammates and require[s] changes in the work or processes of collaboration." Often, teams do not succeed "because distance still matters."

"There is evidence that when working at home uninterrupted, you get a lot more solo work done," Judith Olson said in an interview. "It's the collaboration aspect that suffers. There is something called 'the attribution error' in psychology that plays out here: If someone local is unavailable or out of the office, you attribute it to the situation, that something must have come up. If someone remote is unavailable, you attribute it to the personality, that they are shirking, avoiding you or are incompetent. So, the decision-makers, who are likely in the office, attribute evil personal motivations" to remote workers with whom they can't connect easily. 

Another psychological concept—which Judith Olson calls "social facilitation"—holds that people tend to work better when surrounded by others who are working hard. 

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