Is it time to skip the commute? GETTY
I've been a digital nomad for a long time. In the 1990s, I began using one of the first wireless modems while publishing a technical newsletter and working on computer books. The signal was too weak to work from home, but the nearby Starbucks happened to be close enough to one of the transmitters that I could get by on my laptop. It, unfortunately, presaged a serious caffeine addiction that I'm still fighting today, but I loved the way that I could get several hours of productive work done a day without the hassle of thrice-daily meetings, impromptu check-ins, and two hours a day spent navigating the highway just to get to my place of work.
Over the next thirty years, I alternated back and forth between being office-bound and working remotely, though, save for a brief and fairly disastrous stint on site lasting about five months; I've pretty much become a permanent remote worker. It helps that most of the careers that I have had lend themselves well to remote work: writing, teaching, programming, design, journalism and so forth where the expectation is that you will likely end up spending several hours a day focused on intellectual tasks. This also requires a certain amount of discipline, as the online world, in particular, can prove to be particularly seductive at sapping away your attention.
The Starbucks Effect,with coffee shops and similar venues increasingly catering to the digital warrior, are shaping the landscape of these semi-public spaces as liminal territory for business and a haven for digital creatives. GETTY
There is all manner of digital nomads. There are the weekend-warriors, people who drop out one or two days a week, staying at home or the nearby coffee shop rather than getting onto the highway and battling cross-town traffic. There are the time-shifters, who trade coming in a bit later so that they aren’t spending their time battling traffic, usually in exchange for taking work home. There are those like me, (the homebodies) who work mostly from home and very (very) occasionally flies to a client’s site for a week or two, and there are the true nomads, those who live on the road, working from an RV or boat, and then camping at a client’s when they need to be onsite (call them travelers).
What they all have in common is that they have generally made the realization that the most valuable commodity they have is time, and that the internal politics of nearly all businesses interfere with their ability to manage that commodity.
Traditional managers do not like having workers work remotely. A great deal of management theory is built around the premise that the people you are managing are in the same space that you are in. An absent worker could be doing what they say they are doing, but just as readily could be off watching Netflix or surfing for porn, or, worst of all, communicating with other companies in preparation to make the jump. That most people are more productive when working remote compared to working in an office doesn’t factor in as much. The fact that remote workers are not visible except when meetings are called is something that most old-line managers struggle with.
Along with this is the notion that collaboration is something that can only be accomplished when everyone is in the same location. Arguably, that may have been truer a decade ago, but even then there were many options to collaboration. Today, I’d make the case that it’s easier to collaborate online - you can record the proceedings of any meetings, you can white-board on infinite canvases, you can pair program. Try doing any of these things in real-space today.
As remote work and collaborative tools become increasingly prominent, more and more printers end up sitting idle most of the day. By 2040, these once ubiquitous machines may become as extinct as the dodo or VHS. GETTY
It used to be that before the advent of such tools, any meeting would be preceded by an hour spent at the copier, making copies of papers and presentations for all of the participants. Today, many office printers go days or even weeks without seeing use, while most documents are available via a link. (Indeed, we may be approaching the era of the truly paperless office, assuming offices themselves survive). This same process is removing the need for printing and signing contracts.
We’re even getting to the stage where the process of setting up meetings is more efficiently done online. As a journalist and podcaster, I’ve stopped lugging around microphones and cameras at conferences. It’s much easier to do a quick one-on-one (or even go through marketing agencies) to indicate interest and discuss topics, then do a WebEx or related online meeting where we both have the time to sit down and talk.
In general, working from home (or the coffee shop) is not the same as working at the office. You’ll likely work more hours from home - it is not uncommon for me to be working on a presentation or code at two in the morning - and you’ll also find that there will still be meetings that require that you put in a “core” day of about six hours that is in common with everyone else. As work teams become more distributed, you’ll also find you spend more time playing time-zone Bingo, with people from India, New York, San Francisco and London all on the phone call at the same time.
It is, in fact, this distributed smearing of time zones that is playing a big part in driving more companies into remote working. When, whether as a worker or manager, you have to take calls at 6 am and 6 pm, adding in an hour-plus commute each way means that you will burn out quickly.
The 9 to 5 job has disappeared as work teams from San Francisco to London to Hyderabad deal with economies gone global. Remote work helps better manage that, while still providing sanity to the day. GETTY
If you are a manager, managing remote workers requires that you throw out just about everything you ever learned about managing people in the first place. It is becoming increasingly likely that you may never physically meet the people that you are managing. For those in publishing, this is par for the course, and indeed the advent of video conferencing is letting many editors and writers meet one another face to face, even if through a screen. Video conferencing serves a very real purpose, in that it gives managers, in particular, a chance to "read" their workers' faces, which is a surprisingly valuable tool.
Video conferencing increasingly has other benefits. I recently sat in on a demo with a Cisco engineer who showed me the latest in their collaborative suite for WebEx. One of the biggest new features there was a real-time multi-person transcription, which included the ability to auto-translate and to introduce tags in the conversation for topical or semantic identification, which in turn can spawn action items (more on this in a subsequent article). This record, once scan, makes it possible to search meetings, classroom sessions, webinars and similar media, in effect turning both video and voice into another data channel.
One of the biggest changes is that remote work tends to shift work relationships from numbers of hours worked to specific goals being met. The reality of most remote work is that you generally put in more hours than you would in the office, but many of those hours are generally not "butts in seats" hours. A significant percentage of my work is done late at night, working from my laptop on my bed with the lights turned as low as I can get away with. Some are done at coffee shops, or from my car with my phone tied into the car's Bluetooth stereo system, or is done from airport concourses, taxicabs or aircraft cabins. I often plan out my day in the shower.
The call center has become one of the symbols of corporate purgatory. AI, chatbots and remote working are changing that, as it reduces much of the stress of positions and turns the role of support specialist into a far more desirable one. GETTY
Put another way, once you go remote, and then you escape a pervasive fiction: you are only productive when you are on premises. In a factory, this is (arguably) true. In support roles (such as call centers), this is becoming more false over time, since most call centers can be noisy, work is asynchronous, and the demand for support is shifting from "9 to 5" to "24/7". Additionally, as chatbots become more pervasive, call center demand is likely to drop considerably, dropping a querent out of the loop to a human only when other avenues have been exhausted. This is also having a positive effect on what has typically been a grueling field, in that such support roles both increasingly require subject matter experts (which increases salary) and shifts the focus of such work towards achievable objectives.
There are few knowledge work roles that cannot be done remotely, with the caveat that you are exchanging increasing computing power needs for a formal office. At 4G, wireless speeds and bandwidth are (just) high enough to allow for video conferencing; 5G, once all the bugs are worked out and networks fully implemented, should be good for at least another 10-12 years in supporting almost any video conferencing or immersive gaming needs. Additionally, as edge computing becomes more prevalent, local computing, where all of the computations necessary to facilitate an application, are done on one machine, will be giving way to distributed applications where the bulk of the computing requirements are performed on someone else's system (most typically virtually servers).
Indeed, even today, it can be hard to differentiate where a given program is running. For instance, while you still need a kick-ass GPU laptop to do 3D rendering, more and more modeling and rendering systems are making it possible to tie into virtualized networks to segment and parallelize renderings on scalable servers, which frees up the user's system to handle other issues, such as bandwidth management and user interfaces. This holds for machine learning and other compute-intensive domains as well and as such makes the necessity of staying on premises largely one of security.
Security technology is, ironically, very remote-work friendly. The security domain, on the other hand, is not, primarily because many of the people who set security policies are not, in general, all that knowledgeable about what the technology can allow. As a consultant, I have frequently had companies issue me "locked down" devices that were considerably inferior to my laptop, usually with too little RAM and with software that was years out of date.
Indeed, one of the best things that the Microsoft Office team ever did was to create Office 365 (similarly with Adobe's Creative Cloud packages) as it made it possible for everyone in an organization (and across organizations) to have a consistent software platform, so that the only requirement necessary was an account key. When I could onboard with my BMOD (Bring My Own Device) I was typically productive within a couple of days of working with a company. When I was dependent upon locked-down devices, it might take a month or more. At a typical consultant's hourly rate, that downtime meant that such consultants were being paid around $18,000 a month per person to wait for someone in IT to provide network access or roughly twenty equivalent laptops.
Despite many misconceptions to the contrary, the bulk of all hacking exploits in recent years have been due primarily to social engineering - untrustworthy agents taking advantage of overly tight security to gain physical access to systems. GETTY
So what did that $18,000 a month give the company? The false surety that code would never leave the premises. Poorer quality work because the tools that people needed (and had licenses for themselves) were not available in the corporate library. The fear that inappropriate files would end up on corporate laptops, and hence make them liable for prosecution or civil suits. The fear that they were overpaying their contractors, when in fact they were paradoxically wasting money in making it harder for their contractors to do what they were paid to do. Fear that their employees and contractors would abandon them mid-project, forcing them to put spyware on their company-issued devices to make sure those workers weren't planning on jumping to a competitor.
This ultimately comes down to the breakdown of trust in the digital age, and it is at the heart of the remote work dilemma. For the most part, knowledge workers are trustworthy, in part because they understand that their reputation is an integral part of their continuing to stay employed in a highly connected economy, and in part because honesty is an important quality that people dealing with facts and figures cultivate to do their job properly.
When a company has too much security, it makes it harder for people to accomplish what they are being paid to accomplish, and as such, they bypass security measures. You work from home in the evenings on your system to get things done because you spend three hours a day in transit and another four hours a day in meetings, and your work system is a piece of crap when you do get a chance to use it. You pass secure content over insecure channels (like IMs) because the contractor you're working within Bonn doesn't have the right security access to talk to your in-office network. You keep a list in your wallet of your latest passwords because the company doesn't invest in inexpensive thumbprint readers.
There's a vision that persists of a hacker as being some kid in a back bedroom somewhere running complex programs designed to break passwords. The reality is that even password-protected systems (which aren't well protected) are seldom actually broken through brute force methods. Instead, they are hacked through social engineering and by a lack of proper clearance of people who have been employed. They are hacked by an over-reliance upon body shops that don't do rigorous due diligence and who in turn either through ignorance or malice leave most systems wide open.
I believe that software professionals, like any other professional, should be bonded, much like a CPA is bonded. It won't happen for a while, because most corporations focus too much on short-term costs and a bonded agent will always be more expensive than an unbonded one, even though the overall costs of "security", lost productivity due to poor onboarding and a highly restrictive environment easily swamps the added expense of working exclusively with bonded agents, while in general providing worse results.
In the end, the advent of remote working will be a by-product of the emergence of the reputation economy, and this, in turn, will be driven largely by Gen Z and beyond. This is a generation that has always been connected (my definition of Gen Z is 1991-2008), are for the most part going to startups where remote working is increasingly accepted as normal, and who are far more likely to invest in a powerful laptop than a car or a house.
Despite ads to the contrary, most of these newest workers don’t tend to spend most of their time at the beach (couldn’t afford it; besides, sand and grit does nasty things to electronics, and you can’t see the screen well in full sunlight). They work where they can connect, and find the idea of spending all of their time in someone else’s office building as unpleasant at best, and irrational at worst. They don’t understand paper. They do expect to be fully connectable to their peers, their network, and in general, are very comfortable with virtual presences.
Gen Z, in particular, sees work as something they are connected to, not as someplace they go to. This change in perception is going to hit older, more traditional businesses hard. GETTY
Gen-Z has lost the art of knocking on doors or talking on the phone. Instead, they text that they are on the other side of the door, or they wait to be notified that they have an SMS and respond to that electronically. They see commuting as environmentally horrendous, and office politics as being demeaning and toxic. Put another way, the coming generation increasingly views the electronic realm as being more real (and certainly more pleasant) than the physical one, and view co-location as being the aberration.
The more this happens, the more that the friction inherent in traditional co-located working builds up in comparison to remote working, the harder it will be for companies to justify policies that exclude it, not just from a procedural standpoint, but from a business or cost perspective. While it is unlikely that remote work will completely replace or even dominate business, there are indications that by 2030, most companies will have some form of remote work policy, and that 25%-30 % of the workforce may never set foot in an office regularly.
The recent failed IPO with WeWork should not necessarily be seen as a sign that remote work is declining; if anything, the opposite is true. WeWork arguably failed because it positioned itself as a tech company, rather than a real estate company, and perhaps because many remote workers found that going to a WeWork found little advantage to going into any other office, especially as their primary market was in fairly expensive urban real estate, to begin with. They may have been better served by heading out to the suburbs, where older, more seasoned professionals that were likely to be remote workers lived.
When controlled for factors such as experience and profession, remote workers make about $2000 more per year (as reported by Bloomberg), the difference reflecting again a bias towards trust - companies are more likely to let more experienced workers work from home regularly. Older workers are also in general believed to better at regulating their schedules and make more efficient use of their time. Ironically, the may more likely end up being managers themselves.
From a worker’s standpoint, remote work reduces stress by cutting down on increasingly long commutes, makes it easier for him or her to manage their schedules and thus make more efficient use of time, makes that worker better able to use the tools they are most comfortable with, and in many respects provides a way for people to shift away from pants in seats to actual work accomplished.
From a business standpoint, remote work makes it easier to employ talent that doesn't want to necessarily move from where they've established a presence, reduces the footprint of the "back office" both in physical space and in carbon footprint, encourages recordable artifacts of meetings and events that can be better indexed and searched, eliminates the need for paper, and reduces the risk of valuable employees being injured on the trek into and out of work. It may also reduce the overall security risks that a company faces by cutting down on physical access to facilities, which still accounts for the largest proportion of data breach operations. That it cuts down on traffic times in areas that are increasingly gridlocked due to commuter traffic is a bonus.
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Kurt Cagle is Managing Editor for Cognitive World, and is a contributing writer for Forbes, focusing on future technologies, science, enterprise data management, and technology ethics. He also runs his own consulting company, Semantical LLC, specializing on Smart Data, and is the author off more than twenty books on web technologies, search and data. He lives in Issaquah, WA with his wife, Cognitive World Editor Anne Cagle, daughters and cat (Bright Eyes).