Telework/telecommuting has always been based on the concept of location independence: the idea that some jobs/tasks are independent of where they are performed. Our mantra has been to move the work to the worker instead of moving the worker to work.
The telecommuting portion of telework concentrates on local situations; usually urban-oriented, replacing some or all of the daily commute between home and workplace. In fact, this was the brainstorm I had one day around 1970 while stuck in near-zero miles per hour traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. To make it worse an overhead traffic control sign urged: “Maintain Your Speed”. Inner thoughts: “My job generally involves thinking, computing, writing and otherwise doing solo stuff. Why can’t I just do it at home? Why am I wasting hours sitting here inhaling carbon monoxide and stressing?”
Thus it began: the idea (or at least my idea) of location independence 1.0 — or even 0.1. Our emphasis was on telecommuting because that’s where the leverage was. Millions and millions of workers commuting every day, at least four-fifths of them driving cars alone, guzzling gas, spewing heat and air pollution and harming their health. Almost half of those workers were information workers with jobs similar to mine; paper pushers, idea generators, telephone communicators. If only a few percent of that flock could be persuaded to get out of their cars and walk to work, why what a difference that could make.
We didn’t spend a lot of time then on long distance travel substitution — the other part of telework — because a) there weren’t many people doing long distance commuting and b) those who were doing at the time did not have jobs that were easily adaptable to relatively inexpensive information technology. So the mental picture we had of telework candidacy was of a typical organization in some central location, with employee residences scattered relatively uniformly around the terrain, employees who might be permitted— or demand— to telecommute.
That concept carried us through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Technology and organizational flexibility
In the almost half-century since those first musing a lot has changed, particularly in the technology sector. In 1973 when we did our first telecommuting feasibility tests the main revolutionary technology was telephone lines connecting minicomputers at satellite offices of a large company in LA. Dumb terminals. No PCs. No smart phones. No Internet. Yet it worked! Telecommuting could save the company millions of dollars annually, not to mention the uncounted benefits to the employees and the environment.
Now the available technology for telework has blossomed. Technology turned out not to be a problem then and it certainly isn’t a problem now.
Unfortunately, like the legal and political systems, organizational change for the better has been much slower for many of us. Midlevel managers still want to have their troops physically arrayed around them, just in case something goes wrong. Yet changes are coming.
Years ago I wrote about different organizational options. Here are some of them.
- Hierarchy. A tree-like structure with the boss at the top and expending ranks (with diminishing responsibilities and profit share) of employees below. This is a good structure in a settled world where every work process is well defined. Perfect for robots.
- Flat. A disk-like structure with minimal layers in which employees interact freely with each other and leadership roles change with the situation. This is a good structure in a fluid environment with high levels of uncertainty. Typical of tech and other startups. Above the capabilities of contemporary robots.
- Evanescent. An amoeba-like structure in which almost everything is ad hoc: employees, management, clients are arranged/selected to address a specific problem or problem set. When the problem is solved or goes away the organization may hive off or reform to approach new problems/issues. Way above the capabilities of contemporary robots.
As organizations evolve through these structures, as they must in order to cope with changing times, they are also likely to require access to more distant talents. Generally, not all of the expertise need for complex projects is available locally. Hence a growing pressure for the broader forms of telework.
As an example, the country of Estonia, just across the road from Russia, has embarked on a very interesting venture: E-Residency. The idea is that one can be an electronic resident of Estonia with the ability to set up a business e-headquartered there, without ever going to Estonia. Well, hardly ever. The attractions of being an e-resident are stated as:
- Establish a company online;
- Manage remotely; and
- Achieve location independence.
So now our thinking gets turned around. Never mind where the company main office is (the CEO has never been there) or where the employees live (most of them haven’t been there either), it works anyway. Today’s technology makes it happen. Location independence 2.0 has arrived!
There are many implications of this, of course. Stay tuned for future reports.