For too long businesses and workers have taken for granted that our current social and working arrangements are somehow normal. Mass commuting on the scale that we currently see in countries throughout the world is a very modern phenomena.
It was only with the advent of the passenger car that the geographical spread of cities and the huge movements of workers to and from centralised workplaces became possible on its current scale. For the average commuter the daily grind of travelling on crowded freeways and even more crowded train carriages is a living purgatory.
In his book ‘The Great Fragmentation‘ Steve Sammartino notes that the era of the centralised office is coming to an end. Modern technology, specifically the growth of the internet, improvement of broadband speeds, VPNs and team collaboration tools has meant that for many workers it is at last feasible for them to do their work at or close to home. In Sammartino’s vision of the future – a future which has to a large extent already arrived – more and more workers will be living and working closer to home.
“We’re about to enter a phase where living in the city becomes a choice rather than a necessity because technology enables us to choose where we live and to design our places of work and abodes around our personal requirements, not those of an industry” 
Rather than one big central office that workers must commute to from distant suburbs, companies will either create local satellite offices that employees can commute to or employees will work from home or in local co-working spaces. More and more employees will give up the traditional salaried career and will choose to break out and run their own businesses. With the tools and technologies available there has never been a better time to become an entrepreneur.
In practice we are not there yet. Having worked remotely on and off for a decade now, I’ve experience anecdotally that some businesses clearly understand the benefits of remote working and yet others are a long way off adopting remote working arrangements seriously.
The issue tends to be one of culture and one of trust. I remember a conversation I had with a senior manager at a business event a few years ago. When discussing the possibility of their staff working at least part of the week from home his response was ‘but how can I be sure they’ll actually be working? Will they get any work done?’. This is a common and understandable concern. A concern that is often unfounded in most cases. Many remote workers are significantly more productive than their in office counterparts. Away from the distractions of meetings and constant interruptions (especially in those big open plan offices so popular in many organisations) it is often easier to get work done.
When an organisation measures results based on output rather than the actually hours of work done – which is not yet the norm – they are more likely to be less concerned about the worker’s physical location. It tends to be in startups and small to medium sized businesses where remote working is more widely accepted.
In Australia, and especially amongst the larger corporate players there is considerable inertia preventing full scale adoption of remote working. Worldwide, however, there are many companies where a majority of workers work remotely. One of the best examples is the company Basecamp (Formerly 37 Signals) – a US base software development agency. Most of the staff at Basecamp work virtually, with the business developing and maintaining its core B2B products such as Basecamp the project managenent application via a remote team. As of mid 2015 Basecamp had 40 employees and an estimate annual revenue of more than $150 million. For a small development company this is exceptional.
Towards a new way of working
Companies are ultimately set up to maximise return to shareholders. They are set up to make as much profit as possible. As Sammartino notes “Companies like profit more than they like control” . Changes in working arrangement such as remote working (aka ‘tele-commuting’) and the prevalence of alternative workplaces such as co-working spaces and satellite offices mean that companies can reduce the fixed costs of running large centralised offices.
The office of the future may well be an office that workers come into once or twice a week to physically meet with colleagues, but there will be less of a need for large expensive city centre offices. Team collaboration software, VPNs, Fast internet and an increase in the use of Lean enterprise portals will mean that workers can do their jobs just as effectively – or more so – as if they were physically located at a central office.
As companies like Basecamp , Citrix, Zapier  and Buffer show, it is possible to run a lower cost virtual business and still turnover millions of dollars in revenue per annum. With the right tools and technologies an organisation can reduce costs and allow workers to optimise their work-life balance.
Companies that allow workers to avoid the grind of the daily commute and work where they chose to live will become employers of choice in the future – benefiting their bottom line and the lives of their employees. Allowing workers to work where and even when they choose will increasingly help to raise organisational efficiency and staff engagement in the years ahead.
Peter Burgess is the founder of Olivitek Software. He writes on the intersection between technology and the workplace. Upcoming blog topics will include Productivity, Motivation, Business Process Automation, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and how-to articles with tips on how to automate your SME business. His upcoming book ‘Automating the Workplace’ will be available in the second half of 2017.
To discuss how technology can help your team do their best work contact Peter by email firstname.lastname@example.org or via the contact form at http://olivitek.com. Follow Peter on Twitter at https://twitter.com/olivitek.
- p208 – The Great Fragmentation: And Why the Future of Business Is Small by Steve Sammartino
- ibid. p211
- Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
- The Ultimate Guide to Remote Work – Zapier. https://zapier.com/learn/remote-work/
This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 19th May 2017.