Who needs face-to-face? One of the primary issues in determining the telework ability of a particular job or person is the extent to which face-to-face interaction is needed. Most jobs can be analyzed in terms of the amount of time face-to-face interaction is required versus the time that it is neither required or can be substituted by some form of technology. In the early days of telework the available technology was simply the telephone; therefore face-to-face requirements (meetings, informal discussions, presentations, and so on) had no substitute. So the time available for teleworking was basically the time when the worker could work alone.
As technology has improved it has reached the point where it can substitute effectively for many forms of communication that formerly required face-to-face interaction. Still, there are cases where face-to-face is required or certainly desirable. Let’s look at a few.
Meetings, while frequently reviled, are sometimes necessary. Meetings have at least two purposes: exchange of information about work and schmoozing (otherwise known as socialization). Efficiently run meetings, while arguably rare, concentrate on the information exchange and decision-making issues to the exclusion of all else. Teleworkers love efficiently run meetings, provided they can join them virtually, and tend to loath all other types as serious time — and productivity — wasters. Still, the occasional meeting can be useful to attend in reality in order to help maintain working relations with other employees. Say, once per quarter for old-timers, monthly for newbies.
In my rocket scientist days I used to think that the management skills within an organization showed themselves to be in inverse proportion to the number of meetings called. Good management, few meetings; poor management, lots of meetings.
One of the primary reasons companies insist on having their employees, colocated all the time is the presumption that this encourages serendipity, that fortuitous meeting in the aisles or in the cafeteria that sparks an amazing new thought. From this serendipitous meeting new products, services or approaches to the future may develop, so it is supposed. I guess that this happens, but I have never seen it myself in my entire professional career. Thus I suspect that the serendipity factor is seriously overrated as a requirement for face-to-face interaction, given the productivity-reducing impact of the typical office environment.
By organizational culture I refer to knowledge of the way things are done in an organization, the dos and don’ts, the people to ask for advice (or avoid), the procedures for success, and so on. Organizational culture is ill-defined and hard to interpret for the new worker. In many cases learning the culture does require some face-to-face interaction. How much of this is required depends both on the job and the organization. For this reason we usually suggest that new employees be given a period of a few weeks of in-office experience before starting to telework.
Aside from all the above regarding the nature of the work some people do not function well working alone, without being surrounded by their fellow workers. We once had a telecommuter return to full-time work after a month or two of one-day-a-week telecomuting. The worker was simply lonely and couldn’t bear being separated from colleagues for even a weekly day! At the other end of the spectrum we have full-time teleworkers who are just fine with it. The average that we found in our last survey was that half-time teleworking worked nicely for all concerned
The point of this is that the need for face-to-face interaction varies with the worker, the organization, and the current work status (getting organized, decision-making, producing the goods). So most telework is characterized by its flexibility. Face-to-face sometimes, solo working others.