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Can remote collaboration tools push back against teleworking bans?

Yahoo's recent telecommuting ban sparks questions around whether good remote collaboration tools can increase employee productivity.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently sparked controversy by banning telecommuting at the company, citing that the spontaneous hallway and lunchtime discussions and impromptu team meetings that lead to innovation can't happen from the home office. Although remote and mobile working has become an integral business practice for many enterprises, some companies -- like Best Buy -- have followed Yahoo's lead.

"When [employees] work from home, they have the ability to be selectively available," said Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc. "By bringing everyone -- including the higher-ups -- off their island and back into the office, [Mayer] is trying to change the culture."

Still, many companies -- especially those with global locations – can't simply shut down teleworking. Better tools for remote collaboration may not only accommodate remote employees by removing the limits associated with email and non-real-time communication tools, but can also create a more connected corporate culture -- even while employees are divided by distance and time zones.

Can remote collaboration tools replace face-to-face collaboration?

While some enterprises might review their internal business practices after Mayer's Yahoo teleworking ban, unified communications (UC) and collaboration vendors maintain that the right remote collaboration tools can make teleworkers as productive as office workers.

Siemens Enterprise Communications recently released its Mobile Worker Starter Pack -- a collection of the vendor's existing UC tools aimed at enabling mobility and improving employee communications and access to relevant information, regardless of geographical separation of workers.

"Successful teleworking depends on really good working practices understood by everyone on the team, but it also depends on being enabled by the right technology," said Katrina Lowes, vice president of global demand center for Siemens Enterprise Communications.

Siemens' mobile worker packages include the Team Productively Accelerator, a suite of tools that promotes on-the-fly collaboration sessions via presence, video and screen-sharing sessions. "Great ideas can get captured in action because the tools allow the right person to be pulled in, even if they weren't in the same room or even the same country," Lowes said.

The Virtual Coach package allows businesses to create virtual classrooms to train employees on new applications, or troubleshoot IT issues. "Remote workers can't walk to IT or stand by someone's desk until they get an answer to a question, but that doesn't mean they don't need that same level [of] support and coaching," she said.

Double Prime, an Ardmore, Pa.-based e-commerce company with offices in 22 states, uses a variety of UC and collaboration tools, including Google Apps and Cisco Jabber, to keep their globally diverse team of 94 employees connected.

"We have several employees living and visiting family overseas in countries like Japan, Brazil and Canada for months at a time, but they have the opportunity to get their work done and uphold their employment with us -- that flexibility is important to us," said Mike Tarquinio, chief operating officer at Double Prime.

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The company uses Google's shared calendars and Google Talk. It also uses Google message boards that can be set up on a per-project basis for instant communication and collaboration. Cisco Jabber serves as Double Prime's chat room service, giving its geographically diverse employees a place for ongoing remote collaboration.

"We set up a generic chat room on Jabber called Water Cooler, which allows employees to catch up on broad technical topics and information that might impact their day-to-day work in real time, as well as project-specific chat rooms," Tarquinio said. The company has also dedicated chat room space to open forums, where employees can discuss sports and other non-work-related items, just as employees in an office environment would.

"We have seen tremendous value in working outside of the office with these collaboration tools," Tarquinio said. "Employees can work when they are the most creative, and we know they won't be stuck in a traffic jam when we want to have a meeting at 5pm."

Teleworkers need real-time remote collaboration

Remote workers need collaboration tools that can recreate the experience of being in an office. While social applications can break down the silos of email and help employees connect with the right colleagues, real-time communication tools -- like telepresence, video and Web conferencing -- can improve the teleworking experience, said Phil Karcher, analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

"Video conferencing may not be better than in-person meetings. But being able to see someone visually can help improve collaboration when they have to be apart, because it"s the best way to get meaning across," he said.

While remote collaboration tools have made teleworking easier for many companies, no offerings on the market will be able to completely replace face-to-face communications, Karcher said. But teleworking will remain a cultural mainstay for many enterprises. Those companies should offer as many channels as possible for employee communication and collaboration. Employees should have access to instant messaging (IM) and presence, Web and video conferencing, and the ability to collaboratively work on documents -- in addition to social tools and email.

"The more options [businesses] have, the easier it will be for employees to pick the right tool to interact with their peers," Karcher said. "Next to being able to look across the desk at someone, it's the next-best thing enterprises can do."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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