When working from home just doesn't work

There's no denying that working remotely provides tremendous benefits, but more organizations are finding that virtual collaboration also comes with significant limitations.

This article was originally published by Fortune.com on Monday, Dec. 19, 2011.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE – Once a year, leaders of Community Options come together from its 35 locations for a retreat. The nonprofit organization runs a variety of entrepreneurial ventures that create job opportunities and provide housing for people with disabilities.

At the most recent summit, the chief financial officer was bemoaning the wasted flowers at the organization's New Brunswick, N.J. floral store, due to the inevitable difficulty in managing inventory to meet customer orders.

Listening in, a graphic designer from Community Options' Daily Plan It, which rents shared office space and provides support services such as document shredding, thought they could use the dead, unsold flowers to create potpourri. As a result, Community Options is now launching a line of potpourri, which will be packaged and sold by people with disabilities.

"It's all because a group of people got together and came up with this idea," says Robert Stack, founder and chief executive of Princeton, N.J.-based Community Options. "People play off each other."

In a world of video conferencing, cloud computing, and shared online workspaces, it's easy to imagine that people can work together from anywhere, just as if they were sitting in the cubicle next door.

It's true that telework reduces pollution, improves productivity, and cuts real estate costs for employers while increasing retention and employee loyalty. But no matter how advanced the technology, something is lost when face-to-face contact disappears.

Indeed, a new report found that the number of teleworkers declined in 2010 for the first time since data collection began nearly a decade ago. While there's no denying that telecommuting can provide tremendous benefits, organizations are finding that virtual collaboration has its limits.

"We've tried the cloud stuff; it's good. We've tried the Skype where you have four or five people on the screen. It ain't the same thing," says Community Options' Stack, who holds quarterly in-person meetings for each region in addition to the annual summit. "Collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas doesn't happen by me sending you an email and you sending one back."

When face time trumps convenience

WorldatWork, a human resources association, found that the number of people who telecommuted at least one day a month in 2010 dropped to 26.2 million, down from 33.7 million in 2008, in a report released earlier this year. Even with the drop, teleworkers represent 20% of the working adult population.

WorldatWork argues that the uncertain economy has heightened employees' fears that they risk losing their job if they are not seen. "We found that teleworking went down during the most recent economic downturn, more due to a mindset than to an organization's change in policy," says Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader for WorldatWork.

To be sure, a slight majority (54%) of the decline in remote workers is attributed to a rise in unemployment levels over the past few years, according to WorldatWork's survey; the remainder was attributed to factors such as employees' fear of retribution and increased use of independent contractors by employers.

The association recommends that employees who work remotely visit their home office at least once a quarter. "You have to put in place ways for that employee to reconnect to their co-workers," Stanley says.

Read the full article at Fortune.com.