Remote Working Isn’t an All-or-Nothing Endeavor


The term “remote working” can mean different things to different people.  Are you remote working if you catch up on a couple of work emails while you are out to lunch? Or, what about if you need to take an evening call to speak with a coworker in India? Would you feel compelled to go to the office to be on that call? Or, would you simply take it from home? Each of these scenarios could be considered remote working. On the other hand, some people don’t have an office, and only work from home – when not travelling visiting clients, partners or coworkers. The lines are now blurred on what it means to work remotely. Given this ambiguity and the evolving nature of remote working, I thought it might be interesting to understand how this trend has evolved, to then forecast what it might look like in the future.

By most accounts, the term “telecommuting” was first defined by Jack Nilles in 1972. Referred to as “The Father of Teleworking,” Nilles was working remotely on a NASA communication system. When asked what he was doing, he told people he was “Telecommuting,” and the phrase was born. Later in the 1970’s, the Oil Crisis hit. This resulted in the cost and availability of gasoline becoming significantly restricted, creating a new reason to avoid driving into the office. It was during this time that author Frank Schiff coined the term “flexplace.” He wrote a well-read article for the Washington Post called “Working From Home Can Save Gasoline.” This article is now credited with introducing the concept of teleworking, and led to the first conference about the subject, which took place in 1980.

In the 1990s and 2000’s there were a few technology breakthroughs (HTTP-based streaming, high speed broadband and smart phones) that were “enablers,” establishing a technical foundation to fuel today’s remote working revolution. In addition, several larger organizations such as the Federal Government were experimenting with how remote working might be a way to help cut costs. The National Telecommuting Initiative was developed in 1996 with the mission of increasing the popularity of telework arrangements, specifically within the Government. The Initiative had a strong effect. In 2004, Congress pushed forth an appropriations bill that specifically encouraged the use of remote work arrangements within Federal agencies.

By 2009, telecommuting had achieved mainstream status. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, more than 100,000 federal employees could be considered remote workers; that figure has since increased. The US Government now has a Teleworking website (https://www.telework.gov/) that contains FAQs and all the information you need to begin teleworking as an employee of the Federal Government.

By 2012, despite Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announcement that her company would no longer allow telecommuting, remote working appears to be with us for the foreseeable future. Flexjobs does an annual survey that ranks firms offering remote working jobs. The 2016 list now includes the 100 Top Companies with Remote Jobs in 2016.

 

Remote Working at a Global Company

It is virtually impossible to not work remote when working for a multi-national, global organization. There is simply not enough time in the day to arrange every meeting or call within standard 9-5 business hours. India is 12½ hours ahead of California, which means at 8am in California, it is 8:30 pm in India. With these types of collaborations scenarios, it becomes obvious that someone will be working remote, and the other might (or might not) be working in the office.

When you are working with a team that is spread out all over the world, it is quite conceivable that your closest peers don’t even work in the same office as you. This changes perspective. Now, it might genuinely not matter if you are in the office – there are no “water cooler” conversations occurring in real-time in the office. The only type of “water cooler” conversations that exist today are most likely to be in the digital arena. For example, Google Chats is an effective collaboration platform whereby users can login, exchange ideas or comments, and then quickly move on to their next task.

 

Concluding Observations

Remote working has a place in most jobs today, at least those that require collaboration with employees that might work out of different offices. That, together with the various time zones where people live, makes it clear that it is increasingly difficult to NOT work remote. The key here is that it isn’t an “all or nothing” scenario. Some days, it might just make most sense to be in the office. Perhaps there is an important meeting, or a visitor is attending from out of town. Or, it is planning and budget time, and an in-person interaction should not be missed.  On other days, the benefits of avoiding commute time and managing your schedule with greater flexibility might be your best choice.

Regardless what your split of remote working / working in the office might be, you need the tools to support both types of work environments – giving you the flexibility to manage your schedule as you see fit, with the greatest potential for a productive work schedule. The key is that the choice exists, which is a powerful benefit that can help keep your life in order while performing well at your job. In the end, it is all about work-life balance if we are to find a way to not let our jobs consumer our lives. That type of scenario is a lose-lose one, both for employers and their employees. Remote working offers the potential to really address this challenge, providing a viable solution to solve a challenging situation that has been part of the American work force for the past couple of decades.