26/02/2013 10:36 GMT | Updated 27/04/2013 06:12 BST

Remote Workers at Yahoo! - Back to the Office or Else

Last week, Yahoo! sent an e-mail to all employees telling the ones that work from home that they should now work from Yahoo offices.

Here is an extract:

"To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together."

It's true that being face-to-face tends to improve spontaneous communication and hallway moments, but it's not the only way to get things done.

When companies introduce a policy like thi,s it's normally as a result of someone having abused the system or, in the case of a remote working, it's often an expression of the need for more control by line managers. When employees are remote, managers who don't have the skills to manage the situation often feel out of control and respond by trying to get back the old feeling of security they enjoyed in the past.

We don't know the real reason in Yahoo! Perhaps they feel that the community has suffered in recent tough times and they want to rebuild the relationships through face-to-face interactions. It will probably work - but at a cost.

Part of the rationale in the memo is to "become the absolute best place to work". Remote working is extremely popular with individuals who have more flexibility to manage their own work and can avoid time-consuming commutes to work. It also gives people with family commitments much-needed flexibility.

Not all jobs are suitable for this kind of working. If your work requires close and frequent synchronous (same place, same time) cooperation with colleagues, then remote working may introduce significant delay unless it can all be achieved through technology.

However, few jobs really require this level of synchronous working - certainly not for the whole week. And Yahoo is a global company so it cannot avoid the reality of managing multiple locations, time zones and cultures.

Face-to-face working can be much less effective: people spend significant amounts of their time on gossip, news and catch ups (up to 20% of the day).

I've worked largely from home for the last 25 years and lead a team of people who work around the world, mainly from home with high levels of travel. I also developed the world's first remote and virtual teams training program 20 years ago, so it's something I've given a lot of thought to.

I have no doubt that people in most jobs are far more productive when working from home than when working in a busy office. In my remote team, we meet face-to-face just a couple of times per year to top up our sense of community and relationships and it works fine.

This could also be a matter of trust and control. When someone is working remotely, managers are not as clear on their workload or performance. It's easy for 'out of sight' to equal 'out of mind'. Individuals working remotely also worry about 'how do I stay visible when working remotely?' A lack of visibility can have implications for social contact and also for career development.

But getting face-to-face is not the only way to manage visibility. Successful remote workers maintain a personal and career network. They do attend the office when that is the best way to get things done, and they take care to maintain relationships and a sense of community. They are also adept at using technology to maintain spontaneous communication.

Good communication and collaboration doesn't necessarily mean working in the office from 9-to-5, five days per week. This rather smacks of a lack of trust and a lack of skills in managers to lead in this environment.

If this is a short-term measure to address a specific challenge at Yahoo! then it may work; but longer term people enjoy and value flexibility. If Yahoo! really wants to be a great place to work, then 'presenteeism' is unlikely to be the answer.