Remote Control: On Working From Home
The question struck me as odd, particularly coming from a slick sign posted over the front door of a Fortune 500 company well known for its corporate culture.
That was after a tour of the place, where they showed off their themed conference rooms, goodie stocked break rooms and state of the art gym (replete with corporate masseuse), among a plethora of other inducements to ensure that, like a casino in Vegas, the average worker never leaves the house, so to speak.
In the corporate arms race for top talent, particularly in sectors like technology and healthcare, office space is used as a competitive advantage, an inexorable part (and incubator), of company culture.
Ubiquitous among employer branding efforts are the shots of offbeat cubicles, themed conference rooms and immaculately landscaped, gleaming exterior shots of Prime A office space. These, coupled with perks like onsite daycare, free dry cleaning and catered lunches, continue to serve as effective lure for recruiting (and retaining) top talent.
This continued emphasis by employers, and still pervasively common sentiment among workers, of work as a place as much as it is an occupation, ignores the fact that for a growing number of professionals, the best office space in the world isn’t an office at all.
When you look at the package of perks, or, as they call them, “lifestyle enhancements” companies like Google often tout (e.g. onsite gourmet cooks, beach volleyball courts, health clubs), they’re all pretty much designed with the same end in mind: to make work feel like home. Or a better version of home – a place you’d rather be at than back at your crummy apartment.
“What would work be like if you never had to leave?”
That seems to be the mission, and vision, of so many employers of choice (given the strong direct correlation between office related perks and “best companies to work for” lists), but the answer is simple: it’d be a lot like working at home.
Indeed, the same benefits that companies realize from offering an increasingly dazzling array of onsite incentives, like longer worker hours, improved productivity and morale could be pretty much achieved by offering a single, simple, and cost effective benefit: remote work.
In fact, according to a January 2012 Reuters/Ipsos survey, 34% of U.S. workers report that they’d telecommute full time, if they could; for the 40% of those workers already holding jobs that could be done virtually, that number rises to 79%.
And were those 79% to get the chance to work virtually only half the time, it’s estimated that the annual savings for communities, employers and employees would reach a staggering 650 billion dollars a year.
Of course, those 40% of estimated jobs that could be performed completely remotely skew towards the most skilled, and most in demand, segments of the workforce; the emerging knowledge economy, unlike the traditional service economy, is pretty much location agnostic.
And, increasingly, it’s looking more and more like the workforce of tomorrow is, too. Telecommuting is growing quickest in developing economies like India, Russia and Korea, with much of this pace fueled by multinational employers, underlining the fact that borders are becoming pretty much as obsolete in business as fax cover sheets or shorthand.
Not only is virtual work becoming increasingly commonplace in emerging economies, but the emerging workforce as well. It’s estimated that 25% of Gen Y US employees currently telecommute (vs. about 20% of the overall worker population), and fully one third of all Gen Y workers would choose a flexible/mobile workplace over salary and title.
So given the obvious advantages of going remote, coupled with the growing practicality of virtual work enabled by cloud and social technologies, why do so many employers – and workers, for that matter – continue to look at virtual work with the same level of skepticism the average person might when passing those, “Make 6 Figures From Home” signs on the side of the road?
Well, for one thing, even if there’s an app for that, for many, there’s no replacing real face time – particularly when it comes to professional development and career advancement.
And engaging remote workers – much less getting a geographically disparate group to function, and identify, as a team – are obstacles which challenge even the most seasoned leaders and managers.
Additionally, in the minds of many employers, the autonomy requisite in remote work can be a prohibitive diversion – will people work when no one’s watching?
The answer is yes, of course – virtual work greatly increases productivity and job performance while dramatically reducing absenteeism and tardiness. But that can often (not always) come at a cost of employee engagement and sense of connection to a company’s vision, mission and culture.
So, “what would work be like if you never had to leave?”