by Bruce Ackland
Predicting the future can be a minefield and no one knows exactly how we will be working over the next 20 years, but it will (probably) not be from an office.
Teleworking is on the rise. That’s a cold hard fact. Just like the cold hard fact that businesses are going to have to accept that it will have a significant effect on their business as we surge deeper into the 21st century.
The over-riding and simple human reason for the rise in teleworking is the desire of many workers to increasingly look at addressing the work/life balance. It’s a far cry from the work/work (non)balance of the 80s when the pin strip brigade ruled and the Gordon Gecko quote book was in hot demand with such era-defining statements as "lunch is for wimps". Increasingly, many workers want to have breakfast at home or at least out of the office even if it is to discuss business. I personally even jumped on the bandwagon in a bid to address the work/life balance and as the ancient Greek philosopher Virgil said "Trust one who has been through it".
The basis of this article is to look at where we are with teleworking and, primarily, what the future may hold. In particular we will look at where things might be by 2020. 2020? sounds very science fiction doesn’t it? That’s a whole year after Blade Runner is set. Well, I can’t promise replicant office workers or flying cars by 2020 but I can predict pretty confidently that the teleworking bug of 2008 will have certainly grown significantly. Indeed, in the words of Roy Batty – the leader of Blade Runner‘s renegade androids – we will all "want more life". And that could be the mantra of office workers by 2020.
Future Foundation has predicted that 16.2 percent of the UK workforce will be teleworking form home by 2020, compared to 14.9 percent in Germany and 10.7 percent in France. In number terms this will equate to almost five million homeworking teleworkers in the UK, around 5.6 million in Germany and 2.8 million in France.
The research company has some even more startling figures when it considers a different form of teleworker that they define as the ‘freE-worker’. A ‘freE-worker’ is a worker who at least occasionally uses ICT (Information and Communications Technology) for work purposes in any non-central (or non-office) location. By 2020, the group predicts that 80 percent of the UK workforce will be freE-workers, compared to 81 percent in Germany and 76 percent in France.
The aforementioned shift in workers’ mentality will be driven by a raft of bolt-on factors that are all interconnected with lifestyle and, of course, opportunity and as we all know now, the double whammy of inclination and opportunity fuels changes among the living and working habits of the populace.
So what are the key factors that are making people strive for the better work/life balance in the UK today? Well, for starters you have the increasingly ludicrous price of public transport, and its alarming annual rises, not to mention the even more ludicrous problems with public transport from infrastructure destroying snow flurries to leaves on lines. Factor this in with UK workers having the longest average daily commute in Europe and you have a pretty good reason to never leave your door! Oh, and if you want to use your car to get to work you may want to remind yourself that oil just tipped $100 a barrel and, oh yeah, the traffic system isn’t the best either.
For the family people out there you have the issue of the complex British schooling system and the balancing act of childcare needs.
You can also roll into this such additional factors as urban/rural migration and, of course, there comes the simple opportunity to telework that has come from the availability of new technologies and advancements.
Technology author and futurist writer Will Garside says: "An increased reliance on computers combined with relatively cheap, reliable and "always-on" connectivity has helped teleworking become more viable. Telephony has also changed and the centralised call centre of the past can now be distributed to home workers with relative ease and this is particularly attractive to employees to reduce costs."
Brian Higton, from the non-profit Telework Association, agrees. He says: "Technological gimmicks will come and go. The key requirement for teleworkers is fast, reliable, secure access to the resources they need to do their work from home. This usually equates to fast broadband connections and secure remote access. Tools need to be easy to use. Gimmicks like heads up displays are best avoided."
Garside also believes that the more gimmicky stuff such as HUD (Heads Up Display) will not be the key technologies, at least for now, and that the teleworking revolution will continue to be based on the basics of mobile working and remote access.
He explains: "For the first time last year, laptops overtook desktop PC sales and this is partly a reflection of the increased mobility of the workforce. Another area where home workers traditionally spend is within telecommunication. Systems that allow tighter integration between voice, computers and remote systems, say at a company headquarters, will see a sales increase. However, from a employers’ perspective it is much easier to support a remote worker if they have only the minimum amount of hardware remotely but instead log into centralised applications and services. The big area of spending will be on "services" such as VoIP and remote backup and new types of networking connections such as Ethernet in the last mile."
It’s important to point out at this stage that there’s another key driver of teleworking that comes from the employer and it surrounds the area of property management.
A study by the UK Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors concluded that British business was wasting up to £18 billion a year – around 1.5 percent of GDP – through inefficiency in their use of property. It added: "Over a third – £6.5 billion – of the estimated savings were thought to be available from hot-desking and other new working practices, of which teleworking is an important component."
So with this trend appearing to be irreversible, what is likely to happen to corporate space, after all it’s not cheap is it?
Higton says: "My view is that there will be some decline in the demand for office space as telework continues to grow. For many people, the best arrangement is part-time telework, eg. three days home work, two days in the office. For many home workers, there is still a need to meet with colleagues, clients, suppliers, etc, and, if properly organised, time spent in the office can be efficient and productive. Another factor to consider about corporate space is that organisations are increasingly moving their back-office systems out of their own buildings and into Data Centres."
Peter Thomson from WiseWork, a specialist in helping businesses introduce flexible working, believes how office space is used is likely to change before any downsize in the use of office space.
He says: "Use of office space will slowly reduce, but the use of the space will change faster. More meeting space and hot desks, less fixed workstations."
Garside insists that, ultimately, office facilities will remain a necessity: "Demand for office space is heavily dictated by the business sector. The amount of office required per headcount is dropping as more paper records become computerised and hot-desking and teleworking increase in popularity. However, managed offices are still desirable, especially when they can utilise economies of scale to reduce running costs. Services such as 24/7 security, secure car parking, fibre connectivity, even simple things such as providing a managed PBX are all things that business will need for the foreseeable future."
The rise of teleworking provides obvious issues for employers with a large amount of this based around the issue of employee control and trust. There are two kinds of employers in this world, those who believe home workers work and those who believe they don’t. Many managers get uneasy if they are not in close proximity to their employees while there’s always the issue of whether the home worker is putting in a good day’s work (although surveys consistently reveal that home workers are more productive than their office-based counterparts).
Garside says: "The main concern is loss of control. Is your home-based sales force as effective? Are your teleworker call centre staff answering enough calls? What time do people start? When do they leave? When do they have lunch? If there is an emergency, can we get to key people quickly? Many of these concerns are legitimate and some people either due to temperament or job role simply do not adjust or under perform as teleworkers. There are also some security concerns around teleworking – especially within highly regulated sectors such as banking which also make it less attractive."
So how will managers have to change to adapt to this brave new world of teleworking. Broadly speaking it will be a case of plan, test and evaluate. A recent example was a Local Authority in the north east of England that moved a team which dealt with benefit claims out of centralised offices and into a teleworking facility. The team, which by chance was mostly women with children, increased productivity by around 20 percent. The reason given was a combination of less travel time, better working environment and a happier team.
Higton adds: "The attitude of managers will have to change. This is likely to be driven by the more progressive companies gaining the benefits of telework through reduced overheads (reduced office space requirements), improved staff retention/loyalty, increased flexibility in the deployment of personnel and the ability to utilise people with the best skills regardless of their location." By the milestone of 2020, Higton believes there will be a move towards smaller offices providing physical resources (eg. meeting rooms, some IT resources, training facilities, etc.) with a distributed workforce operating from home, from satellite offices and on-the-move.
Garside envisions that the office of 2020 will be based around the increased automation of common office tasks such as booking meeting rooms, conference calls, etc. while every office worker will use a private mobile to run their working day.
He explains: "When they walk into the office, the personal mobile will connect to the private office GSM networks and calls, voicemail, paging and the like will all connect via this unit. This will also act as a type of "status monitor" to ascertain if a person is in the office, available or on a call in a meeting."
Garside also favours the idea that the paperless office will reach proliferation. He adds: "Although it’s been predicted many times before but never happened, the paperless office will be more common, especially as electronic signatures become more common." Voice control is also expected to become increasingly in use for common tasks like typing and data access.
Thomson sees the office of 2020 as being smaller buildings with more geographic spread with a network of inter-connected workplaces with the common vision of rows and rows of desks being a thing of the past.
But how far into science fiction could this all go? Garside believes that in the further future you could be looking at virtual 3D environments where people log in remotely and work in a synthetic office via an avatar while Higton hopes that the homeworking teleworking generation avoids developments that are mere gimmicks.
He says: "In my view, gimmicks and over-hyped technologies should be avoided. The simplest, most reliable and secure technologies should be adopted by people working from home."
By 2020, it seems that the office worker’s day will be very different and it will obviously have a massive influence on the way businesses interact with their employees, the products they use and the very way we live our lives. I’m still not sure we will have the android workers by then but I’m still holding out for the flying cars.