Among the countless ways in which digital technology continues to disrupt and revolutionise our lives, how we work - and specifically where we work - has become the subject of both optimistic reimagining of cultural norms, and heated debate.
The rise of remote working as a 'thing', both at an individual as well as organisational level in the form of 'location-independent' business models, has gone hand-in-hand with the rapid ascent of the digitally-fuelled knowledge economy.
The origins of the traditional 20th century office were steeped in the industrial model of manufacturing and production: create a common building designed to house workers whose duties constitute clocking in at a set time, settling at an assigned workstation, and working as part of a production line designed to output stuff. All carefully orchestrated and supervised by a rigidly hierarchical management.
The world has changed a lot since then. With so much of the output of knowledge based jobs delivered, collaborated on, and ultimately evaluated in electronic form, an increasing number of companies have come to realise that there’s little need (technically speaking, at least) to insist on the strict adherence to a model of work that was essentially designed for factory workers.
Secure internet connection? Check. An internet connected device? Check. Well then the chances are that the bread and butter basics of your job could be done from, literally, anywhere.
So the thinking goes behind supporters of location independent working. From large corporations who’ve developed flexible policies on staff working from home from time to time, to businesses such as Basecamp who’ve gone the whole hog with an entirely remote, globally distributed workforce - all things seem to point towards a future in which our places of work are far more fluid, non-fixed locations.
And yet, it’s not necessarily that straightforward. Let’s consider some of the pros and cons to location-independent working culture.
The pros of remote working
For employers and employees alike, the attraction of remote working is manifold. To name a few of the key ones...
Remote working gives employees the autonomy to decide what environment works for them. As Basecamp CEO Jason Fried puts it: "Not everybody works the same way. The idea that everybody has to be in an office space between certain hours that appeals to some people but to many people it doesn't. Some people prefer silence, some people prefer a lot of noise, some people prefer a lot of chaos, some people prefer a lot of calm. Why not let them work where they're most comfortable where they can do their best work?."
Put simply, every employee working from an alternative remote location is an employee saving the business money on the costs of using central office facilities. Staff who are permanently remote could be saving a company thousands in the costs of office furniture, equipment and supplies. But it’s not just the business that wins. Less commuting means valuable time and money saved by the employee.
Jason Fried again chips in to nail home this point by observing: "The chance that the best people... are within a 20-mile radius of your office doesn't really make a lot of sense." Finding the right skills fit for a job within a restricted area can be incredibly difficult. But if a company is open to hiring remote workers, suddenly the talent pool widens. Employers hiring on this basis have the freedom to hire anyone from other cities (or even other countries) that could effectively perform their duties, remotely.
The challenges of remote working
However, not everyone has been so eager to jump on the location-independent bandwagon - as IBM’s reversal on remote working policies and Yahoo CEO Merissa Mayer’s notorious 'remote work ban' demonstrate. Let’s take a look at some of the top reasons why location-less work might not be the way to go for everyone.
As mentioned above, every employee is different. We all have our own preferred ways to get into the right mental zone in order to do good work - and that definitely includes our environment. While some employees genuinely thrive on the mental space and solitude of remote working, others don’t take so naturally to it. As Groove CEO Alex Turnbull puts it: "Successfully working from home is a skill, just like programming, designing or writing. It takes time and commitment to develop that skill, and the traditional office culture doesn’t give us any reason to do that."
One of the most obvious drawbacks to everyone not being in the same location is the absence of face-to-face communication. Whilst the number of digital tools out there can go a long way to compensating for that - some proponents of remote work even argue that tools such as Skype and Slack are more effective forms of communication and information sharing than ill-conceived face to face meetings - many of us would agree that it’s hard to match the richness of insights and understanding that come from in-person conversation.
What’s gained in staff autonomy, flexibility and empowerment through a remote working approach, may also lead to a loss in a sense of togetherness, camaraderie and shared values that being in the same building day-in-day-out, brings. Again, there are plenty of digital tools out there designed to encourage and sustain staff sharing and communication - from intranets, to instant messenger services, to tools such as HipChat - but whether they genuinely create the same level of authentic team culture as in-person office culture, is another thing.
So, where does this leave us?
In the digital age, the world of work has rapidly changed and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Location independent companies and remote working is a huge part of that evolution - and overall, a positive leap forward for employers and employees.
Remote working feels like a great additional choice to have, for both employers and employees. It might prove to be the dream for some - but not necessarily for everyone. As long as real-life, in-person interactions remain important to productivity, teamwork - and perhaps most significantly, organisational culture and values - so will the physical office workplace.