Employees, however, should consider their professional goals before gleefully signing on to a commute that ends at their own kitchen table or home office.
The reason is a long-known effect of social psychology called the Proximity Principle, which simply states that we’re more likely to make connections with those who live or work closely to us. While studies tend to contradict one another on whether remote workers are more or less productive, the connections you make in the office are key to your success in two other important areas: your network and your ability to innovate.
First, consider your network. Think about all the ways your professional life is shaped by the people you know. Who would you call for help finding a new job: The guy you’ve called from your living room six times or the person who sat in a cubicle next to yours for a few years and who you ate lunch with on the regular? How about making a good impression on your supervisor for a big promotion: Are you more likely to develop a relationship with a boss who you see every day or one who you only know via email? Both goals are clearly better accomplished with the people you’ve spent time with face-to-face instead of through a screen or on the phone.
Now, think about your ability to innovate. Both individuals and firms are more creative and innovative when colleagues are close. Those impromptu hallway and elevator conversations that come with office life help spur everything from faster learning to better problem solving, writes Dr. John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University. Sullivan argues that some productivity will be lost in foregoing remote work, but “you will gain that initial economic loss and much more back over both the short and long term as a result of the dramatic increase in collaboration and innovation.”
Many businesses have figured this out. Google, Apple and Facebook are somewhat notorious for requiring office work. Other firms that were once known for liberal remote work policies are adopting new practices. Marissa Mayer famously ordered Yahoo employees back to the office in 2014 in search of more innovation. Ditto for IBM this year.
While the research focuses on the benefits employers reap when workers are in close proximity to one another, your career will likely see some of the same network and innovation upside, even if it means living in a cubicle (or an open office, which can be even worse) and enduring the many hallway conversations in which those innovation sparks don’t fly.