The Time Has Arrived for the Home Office
Ten years from now, will office buildings be empty? New technologies, globalization and growing concern for finding formulas that reconcile work and personal life are transforming the traditional concept of the company and the work day. According to the Network of Learning Resources (LERN), a futurist organization, within five years the United States is going to experience a transformation comparable in its impact with the birth of the automobile. The main players in the new revolution are the Internet and mobile technologies, which allow professionals to work from any point on the planet without having to go to an office.
“In the Nordic countries of Europe, between 15% and 16% of professionals are already teleworkers,” says Salvador Aragón, professor at the Instituto de Empresa business school. This percentage is one of the world’s highest, far above the figure of 3% to 5% in Spain, according to various studies.
According to Aragón, the strong contrast between Europe’s north and south reflects different organizational cultures. “The major roadblock to telework is not the level of technological development, but the organizational culture. In Spain, people associate commitment to the company with an appropriate number of hours at the office. Telework, in contrast, involves a level of individualism that has significant costs in some organizations and cultures.”
Last year, a study of 74 government agencies and 1.7 million officials in the U.S. found that only 6% of all public employees were telecommuting to work. The main reason that agencies, including the Department of Justice, did not support telework was that it reduced productivity. Moreover, managers did not like having a team that they could not actually see.
Work and Family
One of the driving forces behind telework is the incorporation of women into the work force. This has broken apart the traditional model of the family, which guaranteed that a woman was at home. Another factor is the need for companies to find formulas that allow them to retain the intellectual capital of female workers, whose careers are too often cut short after they become mothers.
“The working world has become much more feminine in recent decades,” writes Santiago García Echeverría, a professor of economic policy at the University of Alcalá, in his study, “Conciliation between Work and Family.” “The problem of the growing role of the woman at work is not merely about legal norms, nor solely a problem that affects the organizational pay structure. It also has a significant impact on every dimension of our society, changing the foundations that are traditional social pillars,” he adds.
In the same book, Aquilino Polaino, professor of psychopathology at San Pablo-CEU University, stresses the differences between the working behavior of men and women. “Because of family-related reasons, women show up late for work on 27% of occasions, while men are late 22% of the time. Also, because of family reasons, women leave early at a 33% rate, compared with a 22% rate for men.”
Analysts see telework as a fundamental tool for overcoming such differences, and reaching conciliation within the family. “It goes beyond that, because you need to be truly flexible,” says Nuria Chinchilla, professor at the IESE-University of Navarre business school. “Telework is becoming more and more common at major corporations such as IBM, where 70% of employees enjoy this formula for flexibility.” Nevertheless, Chinchilla says it is important to distinguish between two types of telework. “There is a purely contractual telework, and there is telework as a tool of the business culture, which means not controlling what employees do, only the results they achieve.”
Aragón distinguishes three types of teleworkers. “First, there are the professionals who have no other working location, and they work from their homes. Second, there are the part-time teleworkers who, for example, work at home one day a week, using as laptops provided by their companies. Finally, there are the mobile teleworkers. Nobody expected this group to emerge, but they are changing the relationship between work and new technologies, moving toward what I call the Martini Philosophy – wherever you are, whenever you want to.”
Although telework is a widely acknowledged reality, analysts see significant differences in various countries, cultures, types of companies, and types of work. There are also differences in the degree to which telework is considered acceptable. Future of Work, a U.S.-based organization, believes that by 2010 one-third of all Americans will be working at a distance from their offices. Aragón will not make any forecasts beyond the next ten years. However, he foresees various percentages of teleworkers in various sectors. “Pure telework has a ceiling of 10% [of the workforce], and the mobile telework community will rise as high as 60% of the workforce.” Chinchilla says “telework is already a reality,” and she dares to predict that “in ten years, the growth will be exponential; especially, starting in 2010.”
There is no limit to the imagination when it comes to forecasting the office of the future. Aragón notes, “They are already saying that within 20 or 25 years there will be a virtual office because everyone will have a Webcam at home, which people will use to see the work group in a virtual, common environment. MIT is studying this phenomenon, which is called ‘telepresence.’” Aragón says that just talking about this scenario makes him dizzy.
Charles Grantham, president of Future of Work, told Spain’s EFE news agency that, in the future “people will no longer work in one location, as they have until now.” He believes that “the model will be similar to the one used in the movie industry,” where the focus is on reducing fixed costs, especially in real estate.
“Telework brings significant savings in costs, because there is less need for office space, and a savings in transportation costs, among other things,” says Aragón. Consulting firms are a clear model of where the office of the future is moving, he says. For example, KPMG allows nearly 75% of its employees to work from a remote location, from time to time. Consultancies take the approach that professionals must be with their clients, not in the corporate office. As a result, they need much smaller work spaces. They don’t need fixed tables, only common tables. These companies provide all their employees with the technologies they need to be able to work anywhere. “The best thing that companies can do is to provide flexibility in time and space,” adds Chinchilla.
An Office in the Palm of Your Hand
Rapidly development technology is a key factor behind the rise of telework. However, it won’t be today’s most common technologies that rule in the near future, and wind up popularizing telework. Instead, Wi-Fi, Wi-max and 3-G (Third Generation cellular) technologies will be the major factors in the coming decade. “Each company and each professional will choose the technology that makes the most sense. If you are talking about working in a different building from your own company, the best thing will be Wi-Fi. If you are in the city, it will be Wi-max. In the country, it will be 3-G,” explains Aragón. He believes that every professional will use a mini-computer as a mobile, mini-office.
Along with its advantages, telework brings some serious dangers, such as the inability to disconnect. “The flexibility you have at home means you do not disconnect from the computer,” warns Chinchilla. To avoid this risk, Chinchilla recommends training managers “so they can manage from a distance, and they can measure performance by goals.” She believes we need to “help people learn how to manage their time, control stress, and reconcile their personal lives with their work lives, so they are not working all the time. You also have to overcome all the temptations that you have at home.”
Chinchilla believes “most people prefer part-time telework” for two reasons: They are afraid they won’t know how to disconnect, and they derive satisfaction from taking part in a group. “You have to figure out how much time to spend as a professional in the office, and outside it. Your decision will depend on where you are in your life,” says Aragón. The true change, he adds, will come when “telework is a tool for working in a group, not just for working alone.”
“Telework has disadvantages from the viewpoint of socialization,” says Aragón. “It does not create a team spirit, and it forces us to work in an isolated way. To overcome that, things are moving toward a hybrid of telework and freelance work, toward creating real teleworkers.”