Perhaps future surgeons will slip on a pair of haptic-enabled gloves along with a headset and begin surgery on a patient thousands of miles away. As they move their expert hands a precisely-calibrated machine in the same room as the patient might perform the actual physical insertions. Surgery will become a remote operation.
Whilst this is highly unlikely and AR-assisted in-person surgery is far more likely, telerobotic surgery could have a place in the future, albeit one that is many years away.
But that’s not true for work that many of us do today. Those of us whose jobs don’t actually require a physical presence can often work from anywhere with a wifi-connected device.
Since 2010 I’ve worked remotely, or semi-remotely, for a range of companies. It’s not perfect, but it sure is great. But first, some history.
A brief history of offices
East India House, London, circa 1800s
The modern office has been around for a couple of centuries. If you stepped into East India House, London 200 years ago you’d probably feel oddly at home.
Creating supportive systems and network effects is much easier in a single geographical area. That’s why you get industry hubs around the world, complete with communities and supportive physical infrastructure such as roads or high-speed internet. As these hubs grow they inevitablity attract the most talented of people and the hubs thrive.
When everyone works in the same place day-to-day stuff can be easier: communication, planning, leadership, building meaningful connections with your co-workers, working as a team. These can be positive experiences and the social environment of the office helps us satisfy our innate desire for human interaction.
A survey by TINYpulse, an employee engagement company, of 509 US remote workers compared against 200,000 employees across all work arrangements paints a good picture, despite the drastic difference in sample sizes.
The positives of offices don’t change the fact that a majority of modern work can be done outside of an office environment. And when done so, increases fulfilment and happiness of people both in and out of work. See the survey again.
Flexibility and trust make a happy workforce
Just because a majorty of work can be done remotely it doesn’t mean we all want to lurk at home everday slowly going insane or go galavanting around the world. For numerous reasons simply to do with being human, many of us like to stay near our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and things familiar to us.
While the ability to work wherever one wants to is fantastic, what irks people more than merely working in an office is inflexibility, lack of trust, and meaningless work (a whole other subject). We naturally crave control of our own time and actions yet modern, generally inflexible work practices invented for hard, industrial work afford little to no freedom. Of course, the system is designed like this and requires a critical mass of the population to work 9-5 to continue unabated.
Despite this, flexible working has come a long way in the last 20 years, especially in Europe. Parents can pick their kids up from school and attend important events. People can work from home on a regular basis for whatever reason, or simply because they’re more productive. People can adhere to their more natural daily schedule, starting earlier, finishing later, or working in bursts throughout the day (admittedly this yoke of flexibility is rare). These are just some of the small flexibilities that add a large amount to job satisfaction and overall happiness.
100% remote work isn’t necessarily king
Give someone a remote job with an inflexible schedule and little-to-no control over their work and, no matter where they travel to in the world, I can almost guarantee they’ll be less satisfied than someone in their hometown who has all the flexibility and trust one could ask for. As such, 100% remote work isn’t necessarily king. Even the UK government knows flexible working is essential for a happy workforce and thus a thriving economy and populace.
Herein lies the crux of the argument: replace a dictated schedule and mandatory office-working for freedom, trust, and flexibility and you gain nearly all the benefits of 100% remote work. Personally, I’d much rather work for a company that values my output and skills rather than time sat in a seat or logged in on Slack.
A lot of the culture around remote working, location independence, and working from home demonises the office experience. There’s no doubt there are those office experiences that are horrendous; but done well, working in an office is a pleasant, rewarding experience.
What you’ll actually find is that many people, given the freedom and flexibility, choose to work in an office at least some of their time. Apparently, the sweet spot is three days remote, two days in the office.
In fact, when I’m between travels and back where my company is based, this is exactly what I do and it’s great. Even on the road I seek out co-working spaces. What many people won’t tell you is that it’s damn hard to work at ‘home’, wherever that may currently be, all of the time. When you’re focused, you’re focused but when you’re not, you’re most definitely not.
This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t have the choice over where and when they work.
Let’s take a step back
Of course what I’m talking about is very skewed toward office workers, generally those based in Western countries (although this is changing). People working low-paid service jobs, providing healthcare to elderly people, working in factories across the developing world, serving up street food - none of what I’m saying applies to any of these people.
This article itself is talking about a highly privileged issue, don’t think I’m not aware of that.
But when we, as individuals and a society, spend such a big whack of our precious time working (for Americans this number is higher), we better enjoy it as much as we can. If introducing remote working en-masse increases collective happiness, why wouldn’t we do it?
For a wonderful visual representation of just how much time is spent at work, check out this visualization from Flowing Data. It’s pretty mind blowing.
I’m glossing over potential economic gains and losses, practical things like organizing thousand-people companies that are fully-remote, potential strains on internet bandwith due to video calls, and so on. But you get the point. Remote working solves a lot of problems with modern office work (while creating a few) yet the gains offset any new issues that arise.
The actual modern office
I won’t repeat what’s been said better by others so I’ll just list three negative things I find when working in a modern open plan office:
- Focus and deep work or lack thereof - it’s difficult trying to develop strategy, write, or focus on anything requiring concentration when other people are talking around you or to you. Cue headphones and music.
- The commute. I’ve always had it easy with a ~15 minute commute. When I hear of commute times in the hours my heart weeps for dead time that humans could be doing so much more with.
- Lunch. Most lunch food is terrible, overpriced, unhealthy. I hate having to think about making lunch the night before if I want to eat healthily or save money. At home I can just whip something up. When travelling food is often abundant, cheap, fresh.
And let’s not forget that remote workers are vastly more productive than their office counter-parts. Even despite employer trust issues…
What a modern (home) office should be like. Photo by Domenico Loia.
The systemic trust issue
Many companies and employers view their employees as lazy, untrustworthy rapscallions motivated only by money. Or worse still, simple economic resources to be tapped and optimized for most financial gain. A broad and cynical generalization, I know, but it’s often the case.
While this is no longer the only view of management, employers across the board are still scared by the idea of their workers not being in an office. The main worry: surely no one would do any work?
Throw in the idea of travelling to other countries while delivering top-notch work and some people become terrified: “What, working, in another country? Like, actual real work? Hah! Other countries are for holidays and relaxing. No one can possibly work! I don’t want my people sipping cocktails on a beach pretending to work!”
There’s no doubt some people would slack off but honestly, it’s hard to not deliver when you’re a remote worker because you’d quickly be found out. And a majority of employees want to do work they’re proud of. Given freedom and flexibility to do this work when and where they want you’ll find that the work produced is most definitely something to be proud of.
A sticking plaster finding it’s feet
Sadly, remote working is still a fairly niche occurrence–at least among full-time positions and the mainstream economy (see: not tech). Plus, it’s not perfect and I don’t think it ever will be. But simply by adopting remote, flexible work practices much of the broken 9-5 work system is fixed. That’s pretty crazy.
With an increasingly globalized world, despite recent retrenchment into protectionism and nationalism, the long-term trajectory is definitely one of increased global mingling and better and better technology. Let’s hope work becomes a much more flexible operation than it is now. Although company culture will make or break it.