The debate over remote work rages on. At the heart of the issue is collaboration and, by extension, creativity, and innovation.

How well can teammates really work together when they're not in the same building? Don't we need that intense level of interaction to spark new ideas? Surely, teams are more effective when they're sitting side by side... aren't they?

This is what we heard from Yahoo and Best Buy when they banned remote work in 2013, and what we heard from Reddit and other major players as recently as a few months ago. 

It's absolutely true that bringing people together builds relationships faster and more deeply than distributing team members across locations. It's also right for companies to consider the specific work being done, and adopt the best approach to doing it. 

There's just one problem: the underlying rationale. Disallowing full-time remote work in the name of collaboration or innovation is fundamentally flawed (if well-intentioned). 

People problems vs. proximity problems

There are perfectly good reasons to keep everyone co-located. But collaboration isn't one of them.

That's because collaboration doesn't require co-location. If it did, no company would ever expand beyond a single office site. But expand we do. And the level of interaction between offices is only increasing. Nor does collaboration require a bunch of fancy tooling (though a bit of the right tech does keep the machine well-oiled). 

Given the right environment, remote workers enhance your business rather than tax it. If they're off on their own little islands or generally ineffective, that's a people problem - not a proximity problem.

The problem will follow them right back to the corporate office. Using outputs of effort to measure of productivity saps the life right out of your workforce. And telling them how their work should be done throttles their capacity for creative problem-solving.

So here's a radical idea: focusing on open communication, autonomy, and building trust makes people more effective no matter where their desk is. 

Instead of fixating on location, companies are better off obsessing over engagement and empowerment. Investing in culture pays off when your entire company sits in one building, when you're collaborating across multiple offices, and (inevitably) when some of your staff works from home. 

Think "why", then "how"

For a distributed team to function, you need to understand why you're distributed in the first place. (Follow-the-sun customer support? Real estate constraints?) The context is important because it informs how your distributed team will work together.

Then sniff out practices that were adopted with co-location in mind, and work with your teams to evolve them. 

I'm on a team comprising people from two office sites, plus one person working remotely. So we're very intentional about sharing updates and ideas online, either through shared docs on our wiki or our messaging app. For meetings, we use video conferencing. We've even managed some pretty damn productive brainstorming sessions thanks to group video and a Trello board

Relationships matter

Google, among others, talk about the importance of psychological safety and belonging as part of a healthy team. In other words, relationships are a sound investment.

Building a relationship from scratch with people you never see in person can be done, but it takes a long time. And along the way, you can expect a few setbacks due to misunderstandings. 

It's best to create relationships in person, then maintain them remotely. That's why companies fly people out for interviews, and if they're hired on as a remote worker, bring them back for a week or two of face time at the start. If you can get the entire team in one place once or twice a year to "break bread" together, so much the better.

Getting to know each other's quirks, working styles, communication patterns, and personalities is a powerful adhesive force for teams. It gives us permission to be our full, authentic selves at work - to suggest a new idea, or speak up when things have gone off-track.

It's a matter of trust

Collaboration (and innovation!) is rooted in trust no matter where the work gets done. Give your people the right guardrails to work within plus the autonomy to make decisions, and they'll perform well. Tell them exactly how their work should be done, then look over their shoulder to make sure they're "doing it right", and they'll phone it in. 

Make no mistake: remote work is here to stay. Urban real estate prices and the war for talent are making sure of that. There's no doubt that wrangling a distributed workforce is complicated, and that old-school ways of working don't naturally transfer to remote and virtual teams. The key is evolving your practices.