One of the realities that we face in this increasingly online world is that more of our previously "analog" activities are now becoming digital. From shopping and banking to project management and document retrieval, there are more Web-based applications that make our lives easier to manage from in front of the screen.
Which begs the obvious question: if apps can be Web-based, then why can’t workers?
With so much focus on work-life balance, flex time and family-friendly workplaces, more companies are discovering that non-traditional working environments may benefit their employees and their company. In other words, "flex" might very well apply to place rather than time - and "work" doesn’t necessarily mean a fluorescent-lit cube farm.
I think there’s a unique confluence of events that occurred beginning at the close of 2001 which got us to where we are today. Part technological, part sociological, these situations have led to the same inevitable conclusion: we’ll be seeing many more jobs that do not require physical relocation, and even more that encourage part-time work from home.
- September 11, 2001. The business travel market shrank significantly after the terrorist attacks, for a couple of reasons: less free cash flow meant reining in expenses, and travel budgets were an easy target; and Americans were a little hesitant to step back on airplanes after seeing what had happened, preferring rather to stay close to home and hearth. Organizations began looking into more virtual presence applications, such as video conferencing and Web-based presentation software, to substitute face-to-face client and departmental meetings.
- The rise of universally available high-speed access. First it was DSL and cable that became mainstream. Now FiOS is quickly following suit and wireless network cards for the real road warriors are about as cheap as a cell phone plan. Any way you look at it, there is ubiquitous high-speed access wherever we go. Good riddance, dial-up!
- Web-based software becomes endemic. The ability to share photos, files, and other data online has nearly made boxed software disposable – especially when you consider many of these are free.
- "Soft" benefits are being sold by HR. Driven mainly by the FMLA, paternity leave is becoming more of a norm, HR departments have realized that allowing workers the time to participate in their childrens’ activities will make for a happy, more productive workforce. And let’s not forget the growing number of commuters out there on the roads each day. The traffic isn’t getting any lighter. By allowing work to be done off-hours and from home, the enterprise can still thrive while encouraging employees to lead fulfilling and less stressful lives.
So, combine less frequent business travel with online access and software improvement, add to it changing attitudes about when and where we work, and you’ve got the perfect storm for the rise of the virtual employee.
My own company, crayon, is a virtual company. We are scattered around the Northeast and work from home offices, but we use new media technologies to stay in touch and hold meetings – from Skype for our primary phone and IM service, to ooVoo for up to 6 people in a video chat, to Second Life for open houses and large presentations, to Basecamp for project and client management, we don’t need office space. ABC World News Tonight even did a feature story on this.
Now, that’s not to say that we eschew face-to-face meetings. On the contrary, we believe they’re an essential part of how we do business. We check in with each other regularly and have monthly meetings in person. But we know that each one of us has the freedom to work how he or she chooses, and it means that our families are happier, our clients are satisfied and we have the opportunity to build the business of the future. Everyone wins.
I fully expect that more companies will embrace this type of workforce in the near future. In this age of information and conversation, it’s the knowledge workers who will be most sought after - and it’s a seller’s market. Don’t expect them to uproot their families just so they can come to work at a generic-looking office park in a nondescript suburb. A top-notch hire will be able to work wherever he or she wants and will likely choose the company that reflects those values.
The question is: are you virtually prepared?