Remote work is reaching unprecedented levels of popularity, and that’s a good thing

According to a report on the state of the American workplace, those who worked remotely 80-100% of the time rose from 24% in 2012 to 31% in 2016. This surge in remote work may not come as a surprise, as it appeals to many in fields across the board, even unlikely ones. The benefit of being able to care for a sick relative, or the prospect of avoiding a lengthy commute, make the option enticing. That employees might be more productive working remotely rather than coming into the office every day holds appeal for employers as well.

Of course, happy remote workers have technology to thank for making it possible and easy to work from anywhere. Communication tools make interaction flexible and fluid. Cloud networking solutions enable networks to scale safely, which helps a company’s workers collaborate across geographical bounds. Other tools, like a VPN, keep offsite staff connected with colleagues and allow them to participate in the company from afar.

Coworking is the new water cooler

It’s no surprise then, with the rise in popularity and scope of remote work, that coworking is emerging successfully in the grey area between the office and home office. Projections show that there will be 13,800 coworking spaces by the end of 2017, with 1.2 million members. That’s nearly double the base from 2015, when coworking spaces had 510,000 members.

Members queried in the global coworking survey say they join for reasons of community: nearly 59% report seeking a social and enjoyable atmosphere, while 56% are looking for interaction with others. Like-minded people and knowledge sharing also factor highly into the decision to join a coworking space. 58% surveyed self-describe coworking spaces as communities.

Despite remote work’s appeal, the need for interaction and in-person human connection remains strong. In 2017, 45% of those surveyed in the global coworking survey say they were previously working from home, portraying a desire to move to a less isolated environment. Coworking spaces do seem to be fulfilling this need: 63% of coworking members surveyed say that members are the element they like about their coworking space.

Companies as communities

By adopting the ethos of coworking, and the energy of coworking spaces, companies can reinvent their own environments while leveraging their communication systems to further reinforce strong collaboration and productivity. Offering employees flexible work options—in the form of hours or locations—can increase productivity and engagement in the right ratio. It can also help to reduce turnover.

To mimic the social environments of coworking venues, companies should break down cubicle walls and open up workspaces to enable socializing. Big businesses can also take the coworking model as their own. In the spirit of co-working, AT&T Foundry™ enables its engineers work side by side with select start-ups, corporate partners, and third-party developers to bring new products and innovations to market faster.

The remote worker’s sweet spot

Despite the clear benefits of remote work, those who do it full time may miss out on other rewards. The Allen Curve illustrates these challenges. In 1977, Thomas J. Allen observed that the further away engineers sat from one another, the less they spoke. Fast forward to 2017: while tech may seem to imitate proximity, in-person communication remains as important as ever. That’s because in-person and digital communication both follow the Allen curve. The chart below shows how communication tools like email help people to stay connected, but only if they’re in close proximity.

In one study, engineers who shared a physical office were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere. In a separate study, a company that sought to experiment with scattered, temporary seating witnessed a team communication drop of 45%. The bottom line: in-person communication is still effective in helping team members work more efficiently together.

With this in mind, the ideal remote worker splits her time between in-office collaboration and distance working. The highest engagement is among workers who spend three to four days remote per week. They use in-person time to build strong connections that technology then helps them maintain while offsite.

Ultimately, though, it’s the combination of technology and in-person interaction that allow us to work harmoniously, near and far. As we lean more heavily into technology, we need not abandon the very thing that anchors our humanity, both inside and outside of work: the need for human connection.

Tools like AT&T Video conferencing and AT&T Netbond for Cloud enable colleagues onsite and offsite to communicate easily.

This article was produced on behalf of AT&T Business by Quartz Creative and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

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