The landscape has been buzzing with plenty of research on the benefits of remote and flexible work. It’s been shown to lead to increased productivity, and has an undeniable benefit for work-life balance.

But have you ever wondered what it does to everyone back at the office?

A new study by George Mason University and Boston College, published in Academy of Management Discoveries found that increased levels of offsite work can, in fact, have a highly negative and contagious effect on the office environment.

The study’s key finding was that when fewer people work in the office, people who actually go in don’t get the social or productivity benefits they expect from being around friends, close colleagues, and managers.

When no one’s around consistently, the problem gets contagious – staff who once preferred working in the office end up joining colleagues who spend some or all of their time working elsewhere, compounding the problem.

Working off-site is “can spread through the organisation [until] the nature of the organisational facility changes from having distributed individuals and groups to having a distributed workforce,” according to the study’s authors.

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“What defines this tipping point is the lack of enough physically present co-workers to motivate individuals to come to the office.”

The researchers did admit, however, that they found their results surprising because most literature suggests that individuals choose to work off-site primarily for better work-life balance and/or because they believe it will increase their productivity.

Whatever validity there is to this thinking, the researchers argue it misses the extent to which co-workers “provide important opportunities for social interaction As the number of distributed workers reaches a certain point, the social motivation becomes very difficult to fulfill.”

Indeed, “people still appear to desire something like a traditional office,” the researchers wrote.

“In our study even people who worked largely off-site still missed the social and work benefits of the old office. Workers who would normally work on-site decided to work off-site rather than face an office empty of relevant people.”

The research included in-person interviews of 29 company personnel in a California division that mostly provides IT services, nine who worked off-site one day a week or less, 10 who did so between two and four days, and 10 who did so full-time.

Among the various interesting comments the professors encountered were these:

  • “I can come in on some days and never see anybody on my team that is local because they are usually working at home or [are on business] trip” Or, along similar lines, “You come in and find out everyone else is working at home and you are the only one in the office then.”
  • “Being remote makes it hard to have the spontaneous dynamic interactive discussions in the hallway…Because people are spread out and working from home, we don’t have a sense of team…that we might have had in the old traditional organisation.”

Image: Shutterstock

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