TechCast expert Steve Lowe provides a report on TeleWork from the trenches. Steve is a consultant working out of London.
TechCast’s forecast makes it clear that the argument for teleworking seems a “no-brainer,” offering lower costs and greater agility than traditional on-site employment. Yet, there are important barriers to its adoption. I have seen many of them as a consultant to telecoms and tech companies and in corporate finance supporting tech start-ups. Here are some insights drawn from these years of experience:
By 2025, some 30 percent of employees in the industrialized nations are likely to be teleworking two to three days a week. If that estimate seems low, it is because fewer than half of today’s jobs are suitable for telework. Today at least, drivers must work on location. Ditto teachers, doctors, farmers, care givers, shop workers, uniformed personnel, and many others.
There are several more issues to consider as well:
Although it costs little to link a home-worker to the office in this digitized age, associated expenses can build up quickly. This is especially true if the job involves dealing with private commercial or third-party data.
Many employees in the industrialized world have broadband, but their homes may lack space or other facilities they need to telework effectively.
Most people enjoy being part of the team. Periods apart can erode this sense of belonging, and therefore worker satisfaction.
Traditional offices provide dedicated spaces for impromptu meetings, telemarketing, admin, training, and ideation. High-performing businesses use them to help optimize their performance. The ability to move among such spaces enriches the employee experience. Full-time teleworkers miss out.
Belonging and variety form the positive side of corporate life. Office politics and management structure can be the negative. People have a strong defensive wish to be where they can preempt any maneuvering that might harm their careers. Because of this, adopting telework often requires changes in corporate structure and culture. The net impact is that teleworking has tended to penetrate entire organizations, top-down or bottom-up.
Top-down situations are relatively uncommon. They tend to occur after senior management calls in consultants or systems houses to help implement Business Process Reengineering or “Lean” (continuous improvement) programs. Such implementations tend to have all the bells and whistles, including tailored virtual conferencing environments, structured training, and written protocols.
Bottom-up deployments often are ad-hoc mixes of free or cheap services. Unlike top-down programs, major long-term commitments are rare, and groups learn by doing.
Either approach can work well, depending on the company culture and employee buy-in.
The huge growth opportunity for teleworking is in servicing middle management: beneath the C-suite and above team managers. Improvements in cloud-based technologies and growing interest in collaborative tools and citizenship make this a good time to reap its rewards.
Yet, the best use of telework requires one more key innovation: a way to give middle managers the kind of agile, tailored support that basic ad-hoc services cannot. These services need provide security, tailored virtual environments, and user support, but without the high costs of today’s top-down implementations.
Imagine, for example, a team of 20 regional salespeople coming together for an hour-long virtual meeting. At $0.20 per minute each, the gross cost of their service will be just $240. It would take a huge number of meetings to cover the supplier’s development costs and overhead, but that massive scaling is now feasible. After a few years of frenzied activity, these services probably will come from just two or three dominant global suppliers.
The next big change will be in the teleworker’s location. Working from home can be great, particularly if you have an air-conditioned office and the discipline to maintain both good work and your health. However, many people find it physically and emotionally draining.
Since the dawn of digitization, people have talked of teleworking centers, where people could “touch down,” but these facilities have never become common. Today, shops are becoming vacant in communities from tiny hamlets to big cities. This offers a chance to revisit the idea of community-based teleworking. Many teleworkers could find this alternative very inviting.
Until recently, the capital cost of equipping such centers would have been enormous. Fiber broadband, today’s Wi-Fi, and users able to “tunnel” through this with their own secure networks, using their own devices, have made them practical. Are today’s coffee houses and flexible workspaces already serving this opportunity? Not quite.
New business models are required to deliver the drop-in flexibility of a Starbucks with the mix of task-focused facilities available in a small innovation center. Users must able to protect sensitive data, even when talking on a video or audio connection. They will want more screen space than they can be expected to carry. They will need the safe and ergonomic workspace any employer should provide.
One can imagine local authorities and businesses backing such workspaces, as they will help keep local high streets vibrant, reduce employee commuter miles, and help big employers operate more sustainably. Telework also will benefit the environment, the vitality of dormitory towns surrounding urban centers, and those employees who get to keep their jobs because they can work remotely. This appeal could make public workspaces important community centers.
One big market for them will be among self-employed “portfolio workers.” Large companies already use on-demand workers in growing numbers alongside their regular employees. By enhancing their “virtual proximity,” community workspaces could make portfolio workers still more attractive.
Better teleworking technologies also should benefit the rapidly growing number of nonemployees. Given reasonable procurement policies, the self-employed will be able to use them in agile, virtual teams, to compete better against big companies. Retirees also might find an opportunity to build a second career. If local authorities and agencies support telework, the unemployed and vulnerable should be able to feel part of a more inclusive society.
Telework is of course just one of many innovations now bringing change. Organizations, public and private, have a duty to embrace these developments and make tomorrow better than it might otherwise be. Innovations in telework are likely to be more enabling than most.