When Foursquare opened its San Francisco office it had a problem: how to reconcile its team in New York with basing 20 percent of its then-headcount half a country away. Their solution was an always-on videoconference that employees nicknamed The Portal. This is the future of the office.
Telecommuting and digital collaboration in play
In recent years telecommuting has begun redefining the way that Americans go to work. Thanks to project management software, virtual private networks, e-mail and other digital collaboration technology, an increasing number of workers have discovered that they can do everything they once did from a cubicle from their own homes or local coffee shops.
They’ve taken advantage of that in droves. According to a 2017 study by Gallup, 43 percent of U.S. workers spend at least some of the time working remotely, a number that grew from 37 percent when Gallup took its survey of ‘Telecommuting’ in 2015. Of them, nearly a full third work either four or all five days per week out of the office.
Streamline recruitment while cutting company costs
Employers have not been blind to this trend. As workers have demonstrated an increasingly seamless ability to do their jobs without a physical workspace many companies have reacted by shedding unnecessary desks. In 2013, American Express reported saving between $10 – $15 million per year in real estate costs thanks to its BlueWork program, through which many employees only show up at the office periodically, checking in as necessary and saving the company a bundle on unnecessary desk space. Insurance giant Aetna pursued a similar program and reported a physical space savings of 2.7 million square feet…or roughly $78 million per year.
It’s not just savings in office space either. Recruitment has benefitted from remote work as well. Even as employers in the hottest markets struggle to staff their offices, talent languishes in some of the country’s lesser-visited communities. Mediocre candidates are fielding calls from headhunters in San Francisco while superstars languish in North Dakota…but less and less every day. Telecommuting has allowed companies in an increasingly broad range of fields to find talent regardless of geography.
The Aetna and American Express experience is instructional not only for the savings that these companies reported but also for the way in which they did it. Few employees at either company became truly location independent. Instead, both companies embraced a culture of location flexibility. Many employees show up two or three day per week, freeing resources for the company to share among the rest of the team. This is an increasingly common practice in industries from insurance and finance to even more conservative fields such as law.
Maintain facetime value
Those physical ties remain, however, because face time remains critical to modern office culture. That opportunity to look a colleague in the eye and have a conversation, to informally swap ideas, to simply feel like you’ve gotten to know someone remains at the core of building interpersonal relationships, both in and out of the office. This isn’t just a quaint tic of the Baby Boomers either. Roughly 65 percent of human communication is nonverbal, communicated through body language and facial cues. Anywhere from 60 to a whopping 80 percent of the time people judge a new person based on those physical cues.
Is it any wonder that a super majority of offices still say that face time is critical to office culture and professional relationships? That’s why it’s only in the last few years that telecommuting and similar practices have truly come into their own, and the reason boils down to one word: video.
Until recently the lack of face time has been the bottleneck in the remote work revolution. A telecommuter might be able to do almost everything from home, but they still can’t look their colleagues in the eye. Video has changed that. Today’s video chat applications, video-conferencing systems, video portals, webcasting platforms and the backbone on which they run, have advanced to the point where employees can actually build those relationships between the home and the office.
What’s next for the future office
The water cooler, so to speak, has moved online. Now coworkers can get to know each other while reading those subtle facial expressions which say everything from “that’s an interesting idea” to “I’m having a really bad day.” Now bosses and mentors can see the people they supervise as people and not just inbox line items or an occasional voice on the telephone. The technology has arrived which will humanize coworkers who aren’t in the office and in the process make them feel like a team, no matter how far flung.
This is exactly the kind of team building that companies have struggled with, and a chief reason why those companies have kept many workers in the office despite the benefits otherwise.
Telecommuting is quickly becoming the way that people go to work. With increasingly sophisticated video, and even virtual reality options, allowing them to see their colleagues, that seems ready to turn from a trend to a revolution.