Why are most of us still commuting substantial distances to and from the office on most days? When organisations woke up to the Internet in the mid-1990s, one of its biggest touted benefits was the ability for staff to work remotely. Pundits talked up the opportunities for companies to save on office costs, boost workers’ morale and help further the green agenda by reducing the CO2 emissions associated with commuting.
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But these were early days. Of those homes that were online, nearly all were using slow, dial-up connections (expensive ISDN being the only alternative back then) and few companies were thinking seriously either about environmental issues or about ‘web-enabling’ their corporate systems.
Most believed the remote working vision would only catch on when technology and network speeds caught up with the advocates’ aspirations (which, for the most part, they now have). But there was a more fundamental problem with the concept. To many workers, the idea of home-working didn’t seem, if you’ll excuse the pun, remotely attractive.
Few viewed being trapped amid domestic hubbub, or robbed of physical contact with colleagues, as ‘improving their work/life balance’ (as most people still don’t). There was also much debate about whether home internet connections would even catch on beyond the initial flurry of enthusiasts, prompting a fair bit of hand-wringing about an emerging ‘digital divide’.
Enter the ‘electronic village hall’ or telecentre (in fact, the idea was initially called ‘telecottaging’, but for obvious reasons the term failed to catch on). The concept was simple enough: communities would have their own local centres equipped with high-speed internet connections, multiple hot-desks and all the usual shared office facilities.
Back then, it wasn’t a feasible commercial proposition – companies just weren’t set up to allow remote access to their systems. However, the idea of publicly-funded community telecentres did gain some traction, particularly in remote communities. For the most part, though, these were (and remain) drab facilities, built on the cheap – often little more than portacabins with a few PCs and a kettle. In the private sector, meanwhile, while there is today a healthy market for rented, managed office space, most of the demand comes from small businesses and individuals – not from large companies seeking to promote remote working among geographically dispersed employees.
The topic resurfaced last week at a round-table discussion on the future of work communications among analysts, senior IT people and pundits, organised by Vodafone Global Enterprise (VGE). Nearly everyone at the meeting saw the merits of such centres, but few had seen any serious, concerted efforts to build or promote them among either large organisations or facilities providers. Likewise, no one was aware of any significant efforts among local authorities to encourage providers or employers to set up or use such facilities.
But I reckon the time is ripe for us to revisit the notion in earnest. The more flexible IT architectures being introduced by many large companies make the idea of renting remote desks in dispersed, multi-tenanted facilities run by third parties a far more feasible proposition. Culturally, I think employees are more ready for it too. Many white-collar workers today are able to work at home or remotely on occasion (or even regularly). And many of them would relish the opportunity to do so more often if presented with an attractive local shared office option.
What it’s going to take is a smart provider to market and implement such a network of local centres effectively. And, given that everything these days is being recast ‘as a service’ – software as a service, platform as a service, infrastructure as a service, etc – what better time to be extending the concept to ‘local online office facilities as a service’ or, more catchily, LOOFaaS. Of course, they’d need to be a far cry from the soulless public telecentres we’ve seen previously – with high-speed internet access and secure WiFi, virtual meeting rooms, a mix of screened and open-plan desk space, funky and creative chill-out and social spaces, decent coffee, etc.
While it probably wouldn’t be feasible to set something of this nature up in remote rural communities, I can’t believe it’s not a viable commercial proposition in most town centres, especially those with a large number of residents commuting to a nearby city or larger town. While a small number of such hubs are springing up to serve freelance types and start-up entrepreneurs, if the idea is to take off more broadly it will inevitably need to have broader appeal to large organisations too.
My guess is most corporates will probably shy away from dealing with multiple, local providers of such facilities, so the real opportunity here – at least initially – is probably for existing facilities management and IT service companies capable of achieving the necessary economies of scale and presenting companies with a viable and attractive proposition from a trusted and reliable provider. That said, given the current lack of competition, there may be room for existing, smaller providers to adapt and expand.
One driver to increase remote working is the fact companies are coming under increasing pressure to factor in the carbon cost of their employees’ commute to work when calculating their overall CO2 footprint, something which a number of analysts believe is likely to become a mandatory reporting requirement in future. And like the best green initiatives, LOOFaaS would surely qualify as what the management jargonistas call a ‘win-win’ – bringing significant benefits both to organisations and local communities.
People would be working among other local residents variously employed in an array of capacities by a diverse range of organisations. So they get the social benefits of a shared workspace without the office politics, while also feeling more connected to their local community. Likewise, they no longer have the stress or ‘dead time’ of their former commute. (It’s well established, of course, that happy, social, unstressed employees are both healthier and more productive.) And as one delegate at the VGE round table noted, there would be a significant beneficial knock-on effect on local economies, which should see a notable increase in demand for goods and services – particularly since (as another attendee pointed out) employees would no longer be spending a huge slab of their salary on the steadily rising cost of commuting.
Beyond these benefits, businesses are increasingly looking for ways they can ‘source talent and innovation’ from as wide a pool as possible. We are entering the age of connection, collaboration and corporate mashups. A model of organisations where the norm for most employees is to work among (and socialise with) people doing different jobs for different organisations is surely a productive way forward for all of us seeking to form new productive collaborations or broaden our businesses’ exposure to diverse skills, knowledge and ideas.