When Yahoo told workers last week that they could no longer work from home, there was no shortage of punditry opining on the merits of the decision.
Richard Branson, who has never worked out of an office, blasted the idea, calling it "a backwards step in an age when remote working is easier and more effective than ever." Blue Jeans, a videoconferencing company, bought a billboard on Highway 101, just north of the San Francisco International Airport, tweaking Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, that reads, "Call us Marissa! We can help."
While there are plenty of benefits to telecommuting, much of the academic research on it shows that working from home tends to work best in limited doses.
"There's a lot of data on this," said Ben Waber, a visiting scientist at the MIT's Media Lab and president and CEO, Sociometric Solutions, a consulting firm. "If you are telecommuting once a week, it's basically the same as working face to face all the time."
More time away from the office than that, though, and performance can dip. Waber is quick to point out that certain jobs, ones that deal primarily with people outside the employee's workplace, such sales representatives, do just fine rarely coming into the office. But Waber said research shows that employees who collaborate with others perform better when they have frequent face time.
MIT collaborated on a study with IBM and found that software engineers who worked remotely were more likely to develop programs with fewer dependencies on software code created by colleagues. That, in turn, extended the development cycle by 32 percent for those software projects.
"If you have internal responsibilities, the data is pretty clear: face-to-face matters," Waber said.
MIT also studied a call center for Bank of America. While that's largely an external facing job, it turned out that call center workers collaborate regularly. They talk with one another about dealing with a difficult customer challenge, giving tips that can save time when the issue arises again. In addition, managers can better stagger breaks when they can see their workers, which leads to shorter wait times for callers.
"Even with tasks that seem very independent, face-to-face communications do matter," Waber said.
Some, like Branson, argue that digital collaboration tools allow workers to have "regular communication and get the right balance between remote and office working." Waber pointed to a 1998 University of Michigan study (PDF) that found that trust among co-workers suffers when the collaboration is entirely digital. Digital tools are terrific for simple collaboration, Waber says. But the more complex the work gets, the less effective they are.
That said, collaboration technology continues to improve. Plenty of employers are finding ways to save money on travel and office space by giving workers the opportunity to work at home. And the research that suggests performance dips for remote workers may not have kept pace with advances in video conferencing, instant messaging, and enterprise social networks, said Kathleen E. Christensen, program director for Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Working Longer program that studies aging Americans' work patterns.
"Researchers, by and large, are laggards not leaders in establishing trends," Christensen said. "I don't know that research has caught up."
She points to employee surveys after employee survey that show improved job satisfaction and reduced turnover for telecommuters.
"There is very clear evidence that it increases autonomy, that it increases performance," Christensen said. "And it decreases stress."
In the end, companies that do well with remote workers are the ones that are most willing to take the chance that it will work and support employees when they are toiling away at home.
"There's no question that technology makes it possible," Christensen said. "But the culture has to support it."