Untether us. We want a post-geographic office
To bring the workplace into the future, we have to think beyond the office itself. Today 11 percent of all employees report working from home at least one day a week. Practically speaking, this percentage could be much higher, because technology has increasingly unleashed us from our cubicles and made face time less important. “One of the most amazing things about technology is that it allows people to do nearly any job at nearly any time, even if they aren’t available to sit at a desk in an office during traditional workday hours,” says Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who is now running for the U.S. Senate in California. This shift has reverberated all the way to the top: At the White House, more than half the employees of the Executive Office of the President have secure laptops, and any EOP employee can connect to the network through the Internet from any computer in the continental United States. More than just a perk, the practice allowed the office to run smoothly during the city-stopping snowstorms in D.C. in February, at an estimated saving of $30 million a day.
Virtual offices are baked into the culture even more thoroughly at firms such as IBM, where 40 percent of the labor force works remotely, and at Capital One, where employees are encouraged to work off-site. For those who do come in to the office, the entire campus is wireless enabled so people can log on anywhere they choose. At Deloitte, senior manager Karen Burgess lives in North Carolina but is attached to the Houston office; she visits the brick-and-mortar site only quarterly. Otherwise she’s connected remotely, through a BlackBerry and instant messaging, which all Deloitte employees can use. Burgess also uses an intranet chat room set up for Deloitte’s remote employee community; that’s where she goes for IT support. In addition, all of Deloitte’s tax-preparation employees around the world use the same software, which allows them to look at the same document together in real time.
Some companies have gotten rid of the main office altogether and instead use cloud sourcing, linking together only virtually. In her book Influence, which examines the profound demographic shifts now under way, Maddy Dychtwald cites the example of Amy Pritchard, an attorney in Sacramento, California, whose company, Metaverse Mod Squad, monitors websites for corporations and other clients. Pritchard hasn’t ever met many of her 35 employees and 100 associates, most of whom are working mothers or disabled people who connect from home. She even hired her chief operating officer without an in-person sit-down; she met him at a virtual sports bar. “Small start-ups and people on the fringe have the freedom to try new concepts,” Dychtwald says. “Already these small companies are forcing large ones to change in order to remain competitive and attract talent.”
Location-agnostic workplaces also have other, more offbeat consequences that improve a worker’s quality of life. Fewer commuters translates to less traffic, which helps the environment and protects the civic landscape. These social benefits provide another opening for the government to step in and facilitate new ways of working. “Employers aren’t going to make these decisions based on external costs and benefits” that don’t affect their profits, says Cecilia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers and a professor at Princeton University. “That’s where you can see a role for policy, and federal, state and local governments to get involved. Benefits like reducing traffic congestion are cost saving for the community as a whole.” For example, incentives could come in the form of tax benefits for companies that encourage these programs.