Remote work seems to be the wave of the future. A recent survey of business leaders at the Global Leadership Summit in London found that 34% said more than half their company’s full-time workforce would be working remotely by 2020. A full 25% said more than three-quarters would not work in a traditional office by 2020, which is not some far off, futuristic era. It’s six years from now.
Yet in many organizations, getting to work from home a day or two a week is still considered a big perk that needs to be negotiated. These facts seem at odds until you realize that "it depends on your definition of ‘remote,’" says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a resource for job seekers looking for flexible positions.
"In most white-collar jobs, I’d say 99% of people are already working remotely in that they take work home. It creeps into our work style already. I think it’s just not formalized by either the employer or employee." If remote work means that you check email on Sunday night then congratulations! You already have a work-from-home job.
But that’s not all that’s going on. Adam Kingl, director of learning solutions at the London Business School, notes that another topic that came up frequently at the Global Leadership Summit was millennials approach to work.
Flexibility "is the number one reason they’re attracted to a workplace," he says. "People want to take an afternoon off and catch up on Saturday morning." With younger workers being fully aware that you can email or call someone from anywhere, the idea of working differently becomes "a criterion that people are expressly looking for before they’ll sign on the dotted line," says Kingl. "It’s not a perk or reward."
More significantly, the oldest of these digital natives are now in their thirties. They have moved into management. They "are starting to be the architects of workplace culture," Kingl says. Once your boss knows that "work is fluid—it can happen anywhere, at any time," then there is much less value put on "being around for its own sake."
So what about the debate over the past year that working remotely was at odds with innovation? A few companies (such as Yahoo) have famously canceled telecommuting arrangements, arguing that people come up with better ideas when they’re physically in the same space. Attendees at the Global Leadership Summit put a high priority on innovation in the workplace as well.
Sutton Fell argues that the mistake is thinking that working remotely, and working in an office, are either/or propositions. "Most people think of remote work as 100%, all or nothing," she says. "But the reality we see is that’s it’s not all or nothing." People might visit clients two days a week, thus technically working remotely, even if they’re not at home. Then they work in the office another day or two, and one day from home or a coffee shop.
Such a schedule allows for plenty of spontaneous interactions with colleagues, but also some focused, head-down productivity too. In the near future, "I believe that 50% of the workforce will be working remotely half the time," Sutton Fell says. "I don’t think that 50% of the workforce will be working 100% remotely by 2020, or even 2030."
But that’s okay. There are lots of ways to work, and working remotely is a good tool to have in the mix.