As any engineer will tell you our brains are always working out the best path to accomplish something, even those problems that are far outside of our area of expertise. The world to us is a giant set of problems just waiting to be solved and our minds are almost always ticking away at some problem from the most trivial quibble to those larger than life. Some ideas stick around longer than others and one that’s been plauging me for the past year or so has been the one of the 9-5 work day that nearly every work place adheres to. The roots of the problem have their roots back in the industrial revolution but todays technology makes most of the issues irrelevant. Coupling this with the massive duplication of resources required to enable these old ideals it seems almost inevitable that one day we’ll have to transition away from them if we are progress as we have done for the past few decades.
The idea at its core is one of decentralizing our workforce.
Right now the vast majority of workers commute daily to their place of work. Primarily this is because the organisation hosts resources required for them to complete their work, but there’s also the norm that you have to be at work to be working. In the traditional business sense this is true as there was no way that a company could provide the required infrastructure to all its employees in order for them to be able to do their work outside company premises. However the advent of almost ubiquitous Internet connectivity and organisation’s reliance on IT to complete most tasks means that nearly everyone who’s job doesn’t require physical labour could do their job at home for a fraction of the overhead of doing the same work on company premises. The barrier for most companies is twofold with the first being one of investment in additional (and removal of current) infrastructure to support remote workers. The second is one of mentality as traditional management techniques struggle with producing sound metrics to judge employee’s performance.
For established organisations the transition to a highly remote workforce can be rather painful as they already have quite a bit invest in their current infrastructure and most of this will go to waste as the transition takes hold. Whilst the benefits of being able to downsize the office are quite clear they usually can’t be realized immediately, usually due to contracts and agreements. Companies that have successful remote workforces are usually in a period of radical reform and this is what drives them to rethink their current work practices. The pioneers in such moves have been the IT focused companies, although more recent examples in the form of Best Buy and Circuit City in America show that even large organisations can realise the benefits shortly after implementation.
Designing metrics for your employees is probably the biggest sticking point I’ve seen for most workers looking to go remote. I’d attribute this to most managers having come through the ranks with their previous managers being the same. As such they value employee time on premises far more highly than they do actual work output, because most of their decisions are done by the seat of their pants rather than with research and critical thinking. That may sound harsh but it is unfortunately common as most managers don’t take the time to dive deep into the metrics they use, instead going by their gut feeling. Workers who aren’t present can’t be judged in such a fashion and usually end up being put down as slackers.
This idea is primarily why I support the National Broadband Network as ubiquitous high speed Internet to the vast majority of the population means that the current remote worker’s capabilities would be even more greatly enhanced. No longer is a workplace big enough to accommodate your entire team required when the majority of your workforce is there virtually. HP pioneered this kind of technology with their HALO which was designed around removing the stigma around telepresent workers and the results speak for themselves.
At the heart of this whole idea is the altruistic principle of reducing waste and our environmental impact, improving worker happiness and possibly reusing existing infrastructure to solve other problems. Right now every office worker has 2 places of residence and neither of them are used full time. This means that a large amount of resources go to waste whenever we’re at work or not and decentralizing the workforce would eliminate a good portion of this. Couple this with reduced transport usage and the environmental impact would be quite significant. Additionally underused infrastructure could easily be converted into low cost/government housing, relieving the pressure on many low income earners.
Maybe its just my desire to work in my own home on my own time that drives this but the more I talk to those people who can do their work wherever there’s an Internet connection the more it makes sense as the future of the bulk of our workforce. The body of knowledge on the subject today suggests that there’s far more to be gained from this endeavour than what it will cost but until there’s a massive shift in the way managers view a decentralized workforce it will unfortunately remain as a pipe dream. Still with the barrier to entry of making your own self sustaining company being so low these days we may just end up with not only a decentralized work force, but a completely decentralized world.