By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Last week we discussed the need for today’s companies to support flexible work environments – like telecommuting, teleconferencing, etc. We’re all busy people, and the option to work from home when necessary helps workers boost productivity and take care of non-work-related tasks that arise during office hours.

On the other hand, working from the office presents some of its own advantages – not the least of which is a physical representation of work/life balance. While anytime-access to your workstation is great, the ability to take work into your home can cause its own kind of stress.

For example, it’s easy to take a long lunch and then make plans to finish that report once you get home in the evening. But of course, your evening could also mean making dinner, taking care of children, doing housework, and every other part of your life that needs to take place outside the 9-5 workday. The likelihood of finishing that report seriously diminishes once home and family responsibilities move to the forefront.

Seeking Work/Life Balance in an Always-Connected World

Now that we can check email, access information on company servers, and remain in contact at all times of the day, we have to ask ourselves, are we too connected? Many researchers say yes. A recent study by Palm Canada and Leger Marketing produced the following findings:

  • 76 per cent check email outside their work day
  • 60 per cent admit to being “always on”
  • 28 per cent take Saturdays off but tend to work on Sundays
  • 58 per cent check email/voicemail before going to bed at night
  • 37 per cent confess to doing work while attending a social or family engagement
  • 27 per cent have responded to email during dinner”

Over a quarter of those polled sent email during dinner? This sounds like a serious breach of work/life balance. While a company may support or even encourage flexible work situations, employees can’t be expected to be connected and online 24/7. Employees want flexible workspaces to improve work/life balance, not eliminate it!

The Need for Human Interaction

It’s hard for a company to thrive without actual, physical interaction between staff members. Team cohesion requires at least occasional face-time. That’s because so much of what we mean is expressed non-verbally – and non-verbal communication is lost in email or text message. CIO Magazine writer Thomas Wailgun jokes, “Know all the uncomfortable intrastaff interactions and exchanges (rolling of the eyes, exasperated sighs, awkward glances) that happen during company meetings? Without videoconferencing equipment, I miss out on all the subtle body language and dirt on who really despises who.”

But in all seriousness, employees AND employers need to recognize the importance of face-to-face contact. Phone calls, email, and video conferencing all have benefits, but nothing beats physical presence to ensure that all team members are on the same page about a decision or next steps (and even then, it’s not always guaranteed!).

While many employees report being more productive when they telework, there are more ways to measure business success than just the amount of work completed. Teamwork, consensus, and brainstorming are all important attributes of a successful company. After all, a great report is useless if the team doesn’t know what to do with it. Managers should stress that teamwork means working as a team. Even if individual parts of a project are completed by people working on their own time, the group needs to constantly follow up with one another to ensure that everyone is staying on target for a cohesive final project.

Plus, human resources workers and managers should make sure that employees fully understand the drawbacks of telecommuting when it comes to their future career. Actually “being there” may be just as important as producing great work – no matter where it’s produced.

A Trends@Work survey showed that being in the office may give employees a leg-up on their coworkers when it comes to job promotion. “61 percent of surveyed execs believe that telecommuters are less likely to advance in their careers when compared with employees who work in the traditional office setting.”

Encouraging In-Office Work

Some employees will inevitably prefer working from home – after all, being able to answer email in your pajamas, or sip your favorite coffee shop’s espresso while finishing your presentation are great telework benefits. But in-office work is important too. It may be necessary to occasionally entice your staff back to the office.

If the Trends@Work survey results noted above don’t encourage some face-time, it may be helpful to remind your staff of the treats your vendor sent over this afternoon, that they’re missing out on office gossip – er, water cooler chatter – and, in-house tech support is always a perk.

And then there are the unexpected benefits to working in an office. For example, during a recent snow-storm, the offices of many of my friends were closed for the day – and, lucky dogs, they got to spend the day sledding and building snowmen. But when you you have the ability to work from home, there are no snow days! What’s better than not having to work – because you work in an office?