Just about everywhere, whether in the mainstream business press, on LinkedIn, in professional publications, or in personal discussions with family and current and former colleagues, it seems the topic de jour is “working from home.” The popular school of thought appears to be, “working from home is good, being forced to go to the office is bad.” I’ll use the word “remote” in place of “working from home” and “on-site” for “going to the office,” as the former terms seem to have a pejorative connotation based on your point of view.
I would suggest that the issue is not one of binary options but is more complex than the present debate suggests. Whenever I’m asked my thoughts on the efficacy of working from home vs. on-site in the manufacturing industry, my response always is that it depends. It depends on the job, the tasks that need to be performed, their complexity, the level of participation required from other team members, relationships with co-workers and other team members, language barriers, the experience level of the individuals in question, and a host of other unknowns.
The answer is situational. No blanket “good” or “bad.” And the most effective reality may prove to be the hybrid approach of a combination of both remote and on-site. I’ll illustrate the point with some situational examples.
It Depends on the Job
A Customer Service/Tech Support or Inside Sales professional in a virtual call center is probably the best example of a job most often situated remotely and most familiar to us all. Without a doubt, someone with specific knowledge charged with fulfilling discrete, routine, or scripted tasks for a widely dispersed and eclectic customer base can be very effective given the right technical tools. In addition, performance and outcomes can be easily measured to enhance training and improve outcomes. Remote works well in this situation.
However, I once had an on-site Customer Support Center as part of my Finance and Accounting team that served a network of several hundred US dealers. They provided credit and collection services, inventory financing programs, and support for marketing and promotional programs to enhance dealer sales and profitability. The team consisted of professionals who were assigned an exclusive subset of dealers and who were expected to develop a close professional and personal relationship with dealer ownership and staff.
Superficially, it appeared that team members spent quite a lot of time on the phone, behind a computer, and on MS Teams sessions. But being present and embedded together in a common location allowed for sharing of knowledge and best practices among team members, cross-training, frequent personal interaction with dealer staff, and valuable casual interaction and camaraderie within the team. Staff were always allowed to work remotely when needed and when not visiting dealers, but the accepted model was on-site.
It Depends on Job Complexity
I’ve worked with consultants and managed teams that implement complex technology-driven solutions in the ERP, CRM, and other spaces. I’ve found wholly remote work to be very effective from a productivity and cost standpoint during the configuration and development stages of a project. When functional and technical specifications are clearly defined, vetted, and documented, remote technical staff can be very productive and effective during coding and configuration while periodically touching base remotely to validate and confirm progress. This methodology has been proven over time, the most common example being successful offshoring of these workstreams.
Where on-site work is critical to success is in the requirements and specifications phase. Nothing beats personal interaction with people when trying to understand their jobs, their pain points, and workarounds, and to establish business requirements. Walking through a plant, understanding the products, observing the processes, procedures and personnel interactions, looking over someone’s shoulder while they do their jobs, “ride-alongs”—these activities are essential to learning and can’t be performed “virtually” to nearly the same degree of effectiveness. Nor can the confidence and trust of users and team members and acceptance to change be earned without personal on-site collaboration, interaction, and familiarity. Assimilating, reviewing, and documenting findings and recommendations can certainly be done remotely but this heavy lifting cannot.
Experience Level and Personal Relationships
Finally, I believe in the axiom that one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. For someone who has extensive experience with a firm and in a particular role, who has mastered the job from all aspects and has already developed strong internal and external relationships, some combination of remote/on-site work, or possibly fully remote work depending on the job, is warranted. But depending upon the job and situation, I don’t believe the experience, skills, relationships, and proximity required to master a job can be acquired when one works fully remote when new to a role.
An example might be someone in a critical supply chain role such as material planning, procurement, or production scheduling in a complex product environment. Understanding products, their components, and the manufacturing process, as well as having strong relationships with and easy access to plant personnel are critical to success in these roles.
A combination of remote/on-site can be effective if the required knowledge and relationships have been established over time. But a strong caveat must be acknowledged regarding the presence and accessibility of supply chain staff to manufacturing and other facility-based personnel. Facility-based people who don’t have the option to work remotely often need immediate access to supply chain staff. Lack of proximity, availability, and personal interaction in unforeseen or critical situations such as material shortages, expedites, and quality or design issues can impair the ability of facility-based people to do their jobs. This can often lead to discontent and resentment across teams.
And young people early in their careers can be short-changed from a professional development standpoint when put into fully remote situations early in their careers. Personal relationships and trust are often the most underrated aspects of career development and success.
In closing, I am fully in favor of remote working arrangements in the appropriate situations. I recently closed on a home sale without ever personally meeting the buyer’s real estate agent, the attorneys, the mortgage broker, or the representatives of the title company involved. Remote work works in the appropriate situations. Let’s turn the debate into a dialogue that considers all aspects of this issue.