Years ago I usually commented, in response to questions on the future of telework, something like this:
Think of telework and telecommuting as the tide rolling in rather than a sudden tsunami. Telework will gradually increase in acceptance and variety as the enabling technology improves and as our business norms progress past those of the nineteenth century.
That’s pretty much how it was from the 1970s through to the early-2000s, punctuated by occasional natural disasters that acted to ratchet up the acceptance rate while the aftereffects lasted. But since then matters have picked up a tad.
One of the persistent holdouts against telework were Japanese firms. Japanese business culture demanded that all managerial and professional employees and support staff collocate daily in company facilities. There were also social pressures enforcing the leave home and work elsewhere model. Often, when telework was allowed it was for the salarymen on “vacation”. That is, the salarymen would take their families to a resort where there were office facilities so that they could keep working while the other family members took advantage of the resort facilities.
The major earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 changed all that. Aside from the massive destruction and loss of lives, power shortages and disrupted infrastructure caused many companies to rethink their disaster response plans. As was the experience in the United States in earlier earthquake disasters, there are reports of suddenly much greater interest in, and acceptance of, telework in Japan. I don’t have good data on the magnitude of the change yet but I expect it to be substantial—and lasting.
Meanwhile the tide of telework-enabling technology has been swelling as well. The tidal wave of sales of iPods, iPads, and Android-fueled smart phones has come smashing into corporate information technology (IT) centers, prompting serious FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and consternation among those technologists saddled with the task of maintaining corporate security while enabling widespread teleworking. Recently eWEEK, discussed both the necessity of remote working and the problems it presents to IT staff:
Once upon a time remote access wasn’t a pressing concern for most IT administrators. . . . However, as with nearly everything in the world of enterprise IT, technology evolved to the point at which this centralized model no longer applies to most businesses. More workers began telecommuting remotely, sometimes from a continent away, while road warriors developed a culture of rarely visiting the home office.
The article goes on to discuss the technological options that have been, and still are being, developed to provide suitable information security while still allowing teleworkers to function as well, or better than, their in-office colleagues. The technology tsunami continues.
Meanwhile, the fundamental energy problem continues to evolve unabated. Here’s the mantra. The burning of fossil fuels accelerates global climate change. The primary use of liquid fossil fuels is for transportation. Demand for fossil fuels is growing, particularly from developing(?) countries like China. Production of fossil fuels is at its peak and will soon decline (see my Time’s a-wastin’ article, circa 2005, about that). As demand exceeds supply, according to Economics 101, the price goes up. Engine technology can increase fuel efficiency, but not as fast as the fuel supply diminishes. Therefore, fossil-fueled vehicular travel will steadily grow more expensive. Now, political and other manipulations of fossil fuel (oil) production can add a certain amount of noise to the price figures but the long term trend is toward steadily increasing fuel prices.
And steadily increasing adoption of teleworking. The telework tide is coming in faster even though it may not seem like a tsunami.