Working remotely may, to the office-bound, sound like a dream come true. You work your own hours, there are no pesky office gossips or endless meetings. But new workplace trends emerging in the United States belie the concept of remote work as the best option.
Face-to-face human interaction, it seems, is the key to greater creativity, relationship building, and idea sharing. Even with the best technology, conversations IRL (in real life) may be the best way to do great business.
A book by psychologist Susan Pinker called The Village Effect outlines how, in our technology driven world, the feel-good factor of face-to-face contact has been eroded.
"The real-life connections that we all crave — that we've evolved to benefit from through many millennia of evolution — can't be replaced by texting or email," she says.
The craving for in-person relationships (lost in an era of technology) are reinforced by findings from a global study from one of the world's leading HR firms. This found that millennials and Gen Zers prefer to work in office situations than by themselves.
"Despite the introduction and proliferation of new technologies at work, Millennials and Gen Z value the in-person communication that comes with a traditional corporate office much like older generations do," said Dan Schawbel, research director for the study.
Interestingly, it's the technology heavy hitters that are leading the charge back to the office. Apple, IBM and Google have all put in place systems that allow for greater interaction.
IBM has taken the most radical approach, stopping the programme that allowed their staff to work remotely and bringing everyone back into the office.
Facing plummeting profits, they pointed to research around face-to-face contact as the best way to productivity as underpinning their very controversial decision.
Apple and Google didn't have a large number of remote staff to start with, but staff interaction is at the centre of the design of their new office spaces.
Apple's new facility (Apple Park) has been designed to optimise worker interactions, and Google has recently designed a range of cafes for their staff that are set up to encourage people across departments to talk to each other.
While flexibility may be the human resources buzzword right now, remote working has its disadvantages.
For employers, tracking down how their employees spend their time can be somewhat slippery. Being connected with your workplace is extremely important and employees need to be available during reasonable hours so employers can engage with them. Life can be lonely for the remote worker, and it can be hard to find motivation when you're not in the hub of a work environment.
Face-to-face interaction with co-workers can sharpen the blade of creative energy, sitting at home with a cat on your lap, while cosy, can be enervating.
Matt Carter is the national vice-president of Human Resources Institute of New Zealand. He agrees the key challenge of having people working remotely is maintaining good communication with co-workers.
"There can also be issues around productivity, depending on the nature of the work," he says.
Carter says flexibility is important in the 21st century working environment, but this doesn't mean you can take a "one size fits all" approach to how this will look.
"Some people thrive in the office situation, where others find it hard to keep motivated," says Carter.
He believes its easier for all new employees to start off in the office, and the people who already know the culture of the work environment are best placed to work remotely.
"It's harder for a new employee to understand the nature of the workplace if they haven't really been part of it," he says.
A combination of remote and office-based work can be a useful compromise for businesses who want to foster more creativity, but also see the need for flexibility.
Carter says many workplaces will allow their staff to work offsite for a few days a week, or for certain projects, if this is beneficial for all.
"It's common for people to work from home if they have an urgent project they need to do without being interrupted.
"Some office situations can be disruptive if there is precise or detailed work to do, so having time at home to engage in such work can make sense."
The key here is having the right technology in place. Skype, shared drives such as Google Drive, and instant message services that allow for real time communication are great when you have staff all over the place.
Being available is a key component of effective remote work situations. If no one can get hold of you, work will stall and frustration can ensue. If the correct programmes are in place and used properly, everyone should be able to communicate easily and reliably.
The move to bring IBM workers back into the office has been controversial, with claims that they have been unfair on workers who have arranged their lives around work flexibility. Carter agrees, saying that flip-flopping between arrangements can be disruptive.
"If employers decide to change their mind about key working conditions, they need to be very clear as to why they are doing so," he says.
Employees don't take well to seemingly arbitrary changes being imposed on them, so for employees to buy into such changes, good communication needs to occur.
Though bringing work back into the office may help foster creativity and a good collaborative energy, Carter says it's important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when making such dramatic decisions.
He believes there is also a case for offering both options, as long as there is buy-in from the staff involved.
"There is a middle ground which can be very effective if your staff by into it," he says.
"Increasingly, there is a move by employers to offer remote work options on a case-by-case basis.
"As long as the employee can make a good case for it, employers are more likely than ever to be open to such arrangements."