Tag Archives: virtual work trends
Not a very exciting topic. In fact, everybody knows that beige equals boring.
And not exactly what you’d think of as the key to understanding how the evolution of telework and virtual work may impact your company.
But it is. Specifically, the key to understanding how virtual work will impact your business in the future is to understand that virtual work is painting the world beige, and as time goes by beige is getting beiger.
This concept relates to four of the important forces that are driving the evolution of telework and virtual work in general (http://wp.me/p2nZ8P-ja):
The Flat Earth is now the Beige Earth -
In 2005 we were told that the world is flat, complements of the internet interconnecting the earth (http://tinyurl.com/5sbkmx ). Since that time the growth of the internet has been amazing. There are currently about 2.5 billion internet users, compared to only 350,000 in the year 2000. This represents more than 550% growth in a little more than a decade (http://tinyurl.com/7mswb ).
This level of participation in the internet results in a world that is heavily interconnected. Beyond the basic interconnection, virtual education programs such as Kahn Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, and Massive Open Online Courses (MMOC) make it possible for people in every region of the world to gain a strong education. This in turn makes it possible for those people to compete for high-paying jobs even if their home countries are not highly competitive on the world stage.
The trend toward rising interconnectivity has also driven the emergence of a new global elite - the beige business leader who is a combination of white, black, brown, and yellow. These hybrid individuals understand multiple cultures and are comfortable dealing with business environments around the world. In many cases these beige leaders will have lived in several different regions of the world.
There have been many lively discussions about whether the US or China will dominate the world in the future. The answer is that no one country, one culture, or one people group will dominate in the future. The future belongs to those that are beige.
This transition will have a huge impact on the way the world works in the future. It is likely that the use of global virtual teams will only expand. As beige leaders seek to build the most powerful teams possible they will form global virtual teams that are increasingly beige, including participants from around the world.
Future companies and future leaders will only be successful if they can effectively manage beige virtual teams that have increasingly complex cultural and geographic characteristics.
The Workplace is now the Beigeplace -
Some claim that the concept of telecommuting started in the late 1800s when a dentist strung a phone wire to his home. The idea was given a name by Jack Niles in 1972 and was further developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1980s (http://tinyurl.com/4u68flo ).
For several decades the concept has been fairly simple and fairly static: telecommuters were those who would normally work in an office but chose instead to do their work from home, thus avoiding the commute. Recent studies show that about 26M americans telecommute and other studies in other regions show similar results (http://tinyurl.com/a5go36t ). There are lively discussions about whether these numbers are increasing or decreasing.
While those discussions are occurring the world is quickly evolving in a way that will make them increasingly irrelevant. The focus of virtual work today isn’t about telecommuting.
The entire telecommute and telework discussion is based on the binary assumption that a worker is either in the office or working from home (or from some other satellite facility that is located at a distance from the regular office). Unfortunately that binary assumption is out of date. It may be that only 26M american workers telecommute but a huge majority of them do participate in virtual work. 85% of Americans have cell phones and most of them are using them throughout the day and into the night as part of a constantly connected world (http://tinyurl.com/br26wkc ).
This trend means that offices today are more like a bird perch, where workers stop occasionally to conduct some concentrated effort. Even employees who have a traditional office generally spend a large part of their time outside that office. Most employees today are working in a variety of environments beyond the traditional office. Today’s workplace includes Starbucks, a commuter train, restaurants, and any other location with cell service. In fact, 50% of Americans say they use their cellphone to work while in bed and 75% admit to working while in the bathroom (http://tinyurl.com/apbz5cc).
The net result is that workplace itself is now beige. It is no longer a specific location, whether that location is an office or a home. Tomorrow’s virtual worker is not necessarily a telecommuter; tomorrow’s virtual worker is a beige “anywhere” worker (www.theanywhereoffice.com).
This evolution will present new challenges for every business. Those businesses that understand how to deal effectively with a beige workplace will tend to be more successful than those who don’t.
The Balanced Life is now the Beige Life -
There have been lively discussions about work/life balance for many years; probably as far back as one day after the concept of work was invented.
In today’s world those discussions increasingly address the role of virtual work in achieving work/life balance. There are those who say that telework is great for improving balance. They argue that telework can make dramatic improvements in balance by providing workers with increased flexibility. Others claims that it damages work/life balance by adding hours to workers’ already long days.
Which is correct?
The answer is that neither is correct, or perhaps it would be better to say that neither is characterizing the problem correctly given the revolution that is currently occurring in the workplace. Once again, the traditional characterization is far too binary. The traditional “balanced life” argument is based on the assumption that an individual has a work life and a home life. Much of the discussion today centers on either expressing concern that workers are consuming too much of their work life surfing the net or, conversely, spending too much of their home life reading work emails.
All of these discussions miss the point because they are based on that outdated binary assumption. Workers today don’t have a work life and a separate home life; workers today have a beige life.
An increasing percentage of workers today engage in a blended set of activities throughout the day and throughout the week, including weekends. They get up in the morning and check their email over breakfast and on the train to work. If they drive to work they are reading emails while sitting at Starbucks. The vast majority will be receiving both work email and private email on the same device so they will be spending beige time reading a commingled stream.
Once they get to an office – assuming they have an office – they will use their company PCs to shop on-line and check out the entertainment news as well as to do company work. Once they get home they will be using their laptops to write company reports as well as checking on pictures from friends.
All of this is not to say that “work/life balance” issues are no longer important; rather it is to say that they have suddenly become much more complicated now that we are all living a beige life.
Some groups are trying to intercept and control this trend. On the one hand companies are being encouraged to add devices that will forcefully block the use of company equipment for personal use. Others are trying to prevent workers from doing work at home. Advocates of either of these extremes are wasting their time. They won’t be able to hold back this wave any more than a farmer can stop a swarm of locus by standing out in the field and swatting at them with a broom.
Rather than trying to block the wave, companies must learn to manage effectively in a beige environment. For example, companies in the future will almost certain move toward a policy of managing by results (www.ROWE.com). In a nutshell, if an employee produces the required results why do I care when and where she did it?
Companies that hope to be successful in the future must learn to manage effectively in a beige life environment.
The Company Employee is now the Beige Employee -
Ahh. The gold watch. The one they give out at a retirement ceremony after someone puts in forty years at Amalgamated Industries, Inc.
That scene, of course, is long gone.
In today’s world employees will likely work for many companies during their lifetime and increasingly companies are building teams from a combination of permanent workers and temporary contractors. The result is that the composition of company workforces is increasingly beige.
Today the average American will hold seven to eight different jobs before age 30 ( http://tinyurl.com/cz4f5ng ). A growing number of people are working as contingency workers who work on projects for a variety of different companies, in many cases working for more than one company at the same time.
Meanwhile, companies are increasingly moving to models that include extensive use of contractors. Experts believe that almost half of workers will be contingent workers by the year 2020 ( http://tinyurl.com/22kxg2e ). James Stoeckmann from WorldatWork believes that the majority of workers will be part-time within twenty years.
The common thread in each of these environments is that the workplace situation is changing from a traditional model to a beige model in which all aspects of the work situation – including team composition, work location, work time, and work style – are becoming more blended and less clearly defined. The companies that will be successful in the future will be those that understand these beige environments and know how to compete successfully in these environments.
To understand telework within the context of the overall evolution of the workplace think for a moment about how much the workplace has changed in the last few decades.
Think for a moment about the good old days.
I worked for Honeywell in the early 1970′s.
Back in the good old days things were simpler.
Back then the boss was the boss. And he almost certainly was a he. A white he.
There were very clear levels of hierarchy that led from you to him. And there were probably quite a few levels in said hierarchy. ”Workers” were in cubes or at desks in large bullpen areas. ”C” level managers were in cubes as well, but the cubes were 8′ x 10′ and the walls were higher than the walls on “worker” cubes. Higher, but not quite to the ceiling. To get an actual office, with walls that went all the way to the ceiling, you had to be a “B” level manager.
I remember moving through the ranks along the way. And make no mistake about it, there were ranks. Rigid ranks.
I thought having an office must be as good as life gets until I became an “A” level manager. Managers at that astral level got an office with a window. Eventually the company had so many A’s that they ran out of places to put offices with a window. So they went in and cut windows into the interior offices – thus giving each office a window that looked out on nothing but a hallway. Then they covered the inside of those windows with curtains that were permanently closed. (I am not making this up.)
There was even one level beyond the A’s. Oak Street. This was office nirvana. A small collection of offices – reserved for the truly stratospheric – that had desks made from oak wood. Symbols of status – and associated power – were well understood and highly visible. But none more than sitting on Oak Street.
The bosses worked in those various offices. The workers referred to them as, “Mister,” or perhaps as “Doctor” when it was appropriate. The bosses made the decisions. They made all the decisions. Requests for decisions were pushed up the chain and actual decisions (eventually) filtered back down.
Besides the offices the bosses had parking places with their named painted on them. And their own rest rooms. Rest rooms that opened only with that executive key. And they had their own dining areas. And company memberships at the country club.
When bosses made a decision it was generally communicated by way of a written letter. The addressee received the original, while “carbon copies” – made with literal carbon paper – went to lesser beings. Copies of letters to the masses were made by purple-print mimeograph – with all its bizarre smells. Presentations were made with slide decks – only the decks were stacks of actual slides made of 35mm film that were shown with a slide projector. The slide content typically had to go out to production weeks before the meeting date.
Most of all, the workplace really was a place. It was the physical location – the one and only physical location – where workers came to work. There was a good reason for this. We had giant mainframe computers that were bigger than a house. They had huge ventilation systems to keep them cool and they would crash every few hours or so. The vast majority of work had to be done in that specialized physical location. There was no other choice.
Much of the work involved interaction with other workers and all of that interaction occurred face-to-face. In large conference rooms that had huge blackboards and that were inevitably filled with dense cigarette smoke. In fact, in long meetings the cigarette lady would come around on morning and afternoon breaks and pass out cigarettes to all the attendees. (I’m still not making this up.)
The work time was set as solidly as was the place. Our workdays were 7:15 to 4:30, with 15 minute breaks at set times in the morning and afternoon, along with a set 30 minute lunch period. Those hours were absolutely mandatory. There were potentially severe consequences for repeat truants. I remember one particular division president who would sit on top of the roof of the main entrance building with binoculars looking to identify anyone who was walking in late. Stories offered to explain tardiness were often remarkably creative. Generally completely bogus, but creative none the less.
The good news is that (fortunately) the work place has changed in a thousand ways. Most of the characteristics that I described above no longer exist in today’s work environment. Today’s work place has evolved into something that is far more flexible and dramatically more agile, diverse, and inclusive.
Telework is not an isolated, dramatic idea. It is simply part of this general evolutionary context; one of the myriad ways that the modern workplace has advanced from the norms of the past.
Unfortunately, some of those antiquated concepts still persist. In many cases the real, practical need for employees to show up at a specific time and place has gone the way of the dinosaur, just like the cigarette lady. But there are still managers who insist that employees show up at a given location, even when there is realistically no practical need to do so. In fact, there are still managers who insist that employees show up at a given place even though it would be MORE efficient for them to work in a different mode.
If you are one of those managers isn’t it time to drop that practice, much as so many of the other antiquated practices have been discarded? If not, why not?
I’d love to hear your input and comments.
In a previous post I described five forces that are driving the growth of virtual work: http://wp.me/p2nZ8P-ja
This is an example of Force 3 – the basic evolution of business .
There are five basic forces that are driving the growth virtual work. That is, there are five forces beyond the impact of things such as government mandate and the growth of broadband in general.
In addition to driving growth, these forces are also driving the evolution of what we think of as virtual work and they create new challenges associated with each form.
These forces are shown in the following graphic, and are explained below:
Telecommute (or the more general Telework) is the most basic form of virtual work. The concept is simply that someone is working remotely – from home or some other satellite location – rather than working from their normal location in the business’s primary office building.
Telework is driven by a number of forces, two of which are the global trend toward cloud computing and SaaS applications, and the ongoing evolution in how businesses operate.
Cloud and SaaS -
Telework has been around for decades. During most of that time the only essential technology for telework was some form of connection to the home office. In the very early days this connection was a telephone. Initially that phone provided only a voice connection but as the years went by it also became possible to plug that phone into a modem and home-to-office computer communications were born. (See http://tinyurl.com/mpsan for a history of the modem.)
Although these devices were crude they worked. Sure they were slow – and plenty of significant others got mad about busy phone lines – but it was quite possible to sit at home and communicate with a device in the office. Over the years very little changed in this arrangement except that the transfer speeds increased and we came up with connections that didn’t require the handset to be plugged in a rubber holder.
For decades the pioneers of telecommuting were largely limited to text and voice communications with the mother ship. Occasionally there were applications that were structured such that they were available “over the wire” but most were not. Telecommuters were often required to go back to the office to access data files or run applications that were only available within the walls of the “real” office.
Things began to change in the early 21st century with the introduction of cloud computing and SaaS (http://tinyurl.com/2qjapp ). With the advent of the cloud telecommuters could begin to access data and applications from home just as if they were in the office. This trend is accelerating and a vast array of applications are now available anywhere.
Evolution in Business Operations
Telework is also evolving due to changes in the basic way that business is conducted.
One of the most important trends is the rise of the permanent temporary worker (http://tinyurl.com/62wjac9). Gone are the days when a typical worker stayed with one or two companies for life. Increasingly companies are formed as a core of permanent workers supplemented by collections of temporary workers. Temporary workers tend to work more from remote locations because they are not permanently associated with any particular company.
Virtual work is also accelerated by the trend to outsource work to offshore locations. The growth in offshoring inevitably drives the growth of global virtual teams.
There is a huge transformation underway in the design and configuration of office buildings. Offices have gone the way of the dinosaurs and individual cubes are not far behind them. It is increasingly common for offices buildings to configured as collections of areas that are designed for people to meet and interact temporarily – rather than as collections of individual spaces (ie, cubes) where a specific individual is expected to spend most of their day. These changes are driven almost entirely by the trend toward virtual work. (For more information on moving your business into this type of model see http://www.AgilQuest.com).
Anywhere Workers -
The growth in the number of “Anywhere Workers” is driven by those same trends as well as two others:
Mobile Devices -
The rise in Anywhere Workers is largely driven by the explosion in the availability of mobile devices. There were 6 billion mobile subscriptions by the end of 2011 and 2012 should see that number grow to 6.5 billion. Almost 2 billion mobile phones and tables were shipped in 2011 and that number continues to grow through 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/8o4s7ug ).
This growth has changed not only the extent to which work is conducted virtually but has changed its nature as well. As noted above, for decades the image of a teleworker was someone who was sitting at a specific location. The defining characteristic was that the location was outside the traditional office.
In today’s world that virtual worker is no longer tied to ANY specific location, at home or otherwise. Given the proliferation of mobile devices, and the availability of cloud-based SaaS applications on those mobile devices, it is now possible for workers to conduct business while moving about the world. These mobile patrons are engaging in an advanced form of virtual work (whether they know it or not).
Merging of Work/Life
Many articles have been written about the ways in which virtual work impacts work/life balance. Some of these articles suggest positive impacts and others identify negative aspects. These include many valid observations, but the real juggernaut is the fact that what we’ve traditionally through of as “work” and what we’ve traditionally thought of as “life” are blending and the distinctions are blurring.
This trend is empowered by the explosion of mobile devices noted above. Many employees carry cell phones that receive both personal and work messages – and these are often commingled. There is a growing expectation that key employees will be always on and always connected. Workers shop at Amazon while “at work” and answer customer emails while “at home.”
The result is that, again, many employees are becoming virtual workers, whether they know it or not, and whether they LIKE it or not. This move toward the blending of environments has both positive and negative implications but the reality is that it is here to stay. There will be no way to put the genie back into the bottle. We need to recognize the power and importance of this force and learn to deal most effectively with it.
Global Virtual Teams -
Flat Earth -
fIn addition to the trends noted above, Global Virtual Teams are driven by the fact that the earth is now “flat.” It is now the norm for large enterprises to conduct business through the use of virtual teams that operate in many different global locations.
Just like workers in any other environment, these team members may be working out of a traditional office or may be mobile. But even if they are all working from traditional offices they are still working virtually relative to all the other team members, many of whom are not only “distant” but may well be on the far side of the planet.
Virtual Workspaces and Specialized Segments -
All of these trends taken together are driving toward an eventual future in which workers appear as avatars in 3D workspaces where all sense of physical location disappears. In these environments participants all have an equal presence and there is no sense of some being in the “main” location while others are remote. See http://tinyurl.com/a9tprx9 for an example of a virtual workspace.
These same trends have also driven the development of virtual work applications that are specialized to specific areas of application. For example, telemedicine takes advantage of mobile devices to improve health care in rural locations. Virtual education takes advantage of cloud-based applications and the flat earth to improve educational services to people located around the world.
In coming weeks I will provide specific examples of developments along each of these trend lines.
Do you agree that these are the primary driving forces? If not, what do you see as the primary drivers?