I know a dozen or so young people who have always worked from home. The get up, flip open their computer and begin to write, work on a website, or do research with barely a thought of heading to an office. If for some reason they are lonely or their environment is noisy, they head to a co-working space or a café near their home.
Life as a continuum
For them, life and work are blended into a continuum and what time they do a particular thing has no real meaning. They may shower after they have worked for 3 hours or they might take half the day to read or socialize and then work at night. The idea of regular working hours, structured environments, and long commutes is foreign and often even frightening.
Their idea of success is not about putting in a certain amount of time. Rather success is defined as achieving their goals, completing their projects on time or of handling a problem in a collaborative way – often by using technology.
Stuck in our old ways
But for us older folks who have spent years commuting, coming to the office not only seems normal, but is comforting. Our lives are centered on our workplace and a big part of our daily routine is interacting with the people we work with. Some of us found our life partners at work, made good friendships, learnt what we know from others at work, and built our professional networks because of the physical proximity of a workplace.
And despite the knowledge that we waste time and fuel by driving into work, the habit persists. It also persists in the minds of managers who feel that physical presence is essential to getting things done. Google, Yahoo and many other leading organizations frown on or prohibit telecommuting insisting that the benefits from face-to-face interaction outweigh the benefits of working from home.
Why is this attitude wrong?
1. Hierarchy, structure and inflexibility inhibit creativity.
We know from example, research and history that creativity thrives where there is the most freedom of thought, activity and interaction. No one knows when a chance encounter, a social event or a conversation might trigger a creative thought or great new idea. By forcing people to an office and a structured environment and by making people interact with other people they know and with whom they are comfortable, fosters traditional thinking. One has to be free to break the rules, experiment, and even be non-productive in order for the creative ideas to bubble up.
2. Our current workplaces are designed for the masses, not for individuals.
We are living in an era when we personalize almost everything. Companies try hard to find ways for us to customize their products and services to match our needs and desires. Yet, the office remains a barren landscape of felt, steel and glass. While many of these offices are architecturally beautiful, they do not reflect individual taste. Nor do they inspire us or help us to be more creative. They impose an architect’s idea on our individuality.
3. Technology enables empowerment.
The explosion of tools, apps, and networks is eroding the need for physical office space. While we are social creatures and there is a need for and a reason for face-to-face interaction, much of that interaction can be done virtually. Video conferencing, Skype, Google Hangouts and a host of other tools are making it cheap and easy to connect with anyone anywhere.
What is lacking is not the ability to connect virtually; it is the lack of skill in doing so. We have all perfected the nuances of face-to-face communication. We know how to act in meetings and how to respond verbally or with body language. This is all harder to do virtually. We have to relearn how to communicate. This is much easier for younger people who have been communicating this way their entire life. We old folks have to catch up or be left behind.
4. Management should be about coaching, not about controlling.
Too many managers still think their job is to make sure people are putting in their time. The focus is on being somewhere rather than on getting something useful done. Good managers know how to set goals and negotiate outputs and then focus on helping people achieve those outputs.
People should be trusted and challenged. Where someone does their work is really immaterial unless there are tools or people that can only be accessed by physical presence. Collaboration tools and social networks have made communication much easier and more natural. There are hundreds of global workers who have managers in other countries and who are highly successful.
5. Younger generations are not attracted.
Expectations have changed and while Boomers and Gen X may be content and comfortable coming to the office every day, Gen Y is not. In fact, they are neutral about the workplace because they do not expect to be there very much. When I ask new college graduates what they most want from an employer, one of the top things they identify is to have a flexible working schedule. Many want an employer that allows them to work remotely most of the time from anywhere. There are an increasing number of “digital nomads,” people who live in tropical places, for example, yet work for major firms on projects.
The only barriers to letting people work from wherever they wish are our own mindsets and habits. The stars are aligned for virtual work to happen, and it will be normal for us to sometimes be in an office but most of the time be somewhere else very soon. Are you ready?
Kevin will be participating in a panel session looking at the future workforce, and how we get there at #CWF15 in Sydney on 22-23 September. Kevin will be joined by Simon Townsend and Peter Oreb who will all explore the trends set to impact organisations, and how they can start to implement changes to future proof their organisations today. To participate, register your ticket for the event here.
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