THE BLOG
09/13/2014 10:55 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST

Your Business Could Benefit From a 'Virtual Watercooler'

Advanced communication systems allow people to easily find other coworkers and engage them through multiple channels and devices. Coworkers can dial each other into voice or video, screen sharing and collaborative file sessions, giving those casual conversations a range of tools to enhance the experience and exchange.

Over the last year we've seen companies starting to doubt the virtues of the mobile workforce with HP, Yahoo! and a few others calling hundreds of employees back into the office. But was it the right move?

These tech giants, and those who have followed, may be reacting too soon to what some have called a "disengaged workforce." The known benefits of telecommuting seem as desirable as ever as businesses look to add value and increase ROI wherever possible.

Even when measured against the perks of working in-house, telecommuting seems to have the edge with enterprise-level cloud telecom now available to businesses of all sizes and their remote teams.

(Offsite) Employee Satisfaction vs. (Onsite) Staff Chemistry

It's common knowledge (and common sense) that people working from home describe higher job satisfaction and a better balance of work and family. According to a review by the Telework Research Network of about 2,000 studies conducted over the last 10 years, employees who work outside of the office can have higher productivity because of: fewer interruptions, greater flexibility, more time for work and more.

Remote workers also feel less stress while working at home than in an office environment, and can save an average of $2,000 (Canadian) a year in vehicle and work-related costs.

Ultimately both employees and employers reap the benefits of these perks and others. Businesses gain a more positive workforce, less employee turnover and increased job performance.

Then what is it about the office dynamic that is worth protecting? Last year, in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki pointed out that telecommuting limits the countless face-to-face exchanges that lead to valuable ideas and solutions. There's evidence to suggest that employees actively discuss and solve work-related problems when they're chatting in the halls, in the break room, and on lunch. Presumably, the larger the company is, the more of these interactions there are to harness -- perhaps justifying Yahoo's bold move.

Without these break time insights, he claims, the company as a whole loses a deep, albeit intangible, resource for problem solving, brainstorming and teamwork. Any company struggling with its identity and competitive edge just can't afford to give up this live chemistry. Surowiecki concluded that relationships between coworkers may be negatively affected despite other benefits.

If so, then the decision between in-house and remote work becomes a difficult trade-off.

So how do we decide between the two?

We might not have to.

Each communications breakthrough, whether it's a new device, interface or application, makes that gap between people a little bit smaller. Surowiecki pointed out that telecommuting works fine for planned interactions, but less so for the spontaneous ones. But the line between planned and spontaneous is changing as the technology progresses.

Advanced communication systems allow people to easily find other coworkers and engage them through multiple channels and devices. Coworkers can dial each other into voice or video, screen sharing and collaborative file sessions, giving those casual conversations a range of tools to enhance the experience and exchange. The spontaneous conversation can even continue out of the office with mobile devices and softphone technology. And the most fruitful conversations can be recorded for later use.

Now imagine a company policy that encouraged these online exchanges. Instead of a dramatic employee recall like Yahoo's -- an equally bold "social telecommuting policy" would create waves of change. The technology is already around to support it, and only getting better. We just need people to use it, and employers to let them.

The potential of telecommuting is really only beginning as advanced Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and Unified Communications (UC) grow in popularity and ability. It's a potential 'best of both worlds,' allowing companies to nurture job satisfaction, productivity as well as working relationships. With UC, there's no need to choose between the two. Having a rich exchange at the 'virtual watercooler' is a viable option more employers can start looking at before jumping into an all or nothing approach to remote work.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

Photo gallery How To Make Your Commute Less Stressful See Gallery