In 1980, futurist Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave predicted a soon-to-be-realized work revolution, made possible by new technology, that largely eliminated offices and city traffic. He wasn't alone. Repeatedly, as the Internet has evolved and communication technologies have improved, the obituary of the traditional office has been written, and rewritten. And yet, anyone who's tried to navigate rush hour traffic in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco .. or any other American city ... can attest to the fact that quite a few people, actually, are still traveling to and from offices at approximately the same time each day.
Why is that? Surely, with email, audio and video conferencing, Blackberries, iPhones, and file sharing, we can communicate perfectly adequately with our co-workers, without having to be in the same physical place or space.
Maybe not. This 2003 eve-of-census review by the InnoVisions Canada (a telework consulting organization) concluded, among other things, that one of the reason the oft-predicted "home work revolution" hadn't panned out as expected was that companies still prefer "face time." Telecommuting and flex time were being used--just not in "the way the more sensational headlines foretold," explained the head of the Canadian Telework Association.
Is Canada so much different than the U.S.? Are most employers Luddites who are behind the time, but will soon see the light? Or has so much changed, in the past 6 years ... or will so much change in the coming 6 years ... that the revolution will finally come to pass?
Somehow ... although Lord knows, I could be wrong ... I don't think so. For starters, not everyone is well-suited to working at home. Having worked from home for 19 years, I can attest to the downsides, as well as the advantages. Among other challenges, it requires a lot of self-discipline to stay focused on work, and not get distracted by everything else waiting to be done. And employers know this.
But even more importantly ... there's just no substitute for face to face contact with people. No matter how much new technology we develop.
Three reasons for that:
First ... Email/text/phone conversations do not convey anywhere near as much information as an in-person meeting. Ask anyone who's ever done computer dating. And that additional information still matters, even in a business context. My strongest business contacts are always those people I've spent time with in person. Why? Because physical proximity opens doors to a fuller connection with people. You get a far better sense of who they are, and you're also far more likely to talk about non-business topics. Their family life. Their history. The terrible vacation disaster they had last month. And that translates into both a stronger connection and a stronger working relationship.
Second ... While one could argue that the above connections could be made in sporadic meetings, not requiring an office, remote communication doesn't nurture the same level and quality of "hey, what do you think about this idea" casual, quick collaboration that physical proximity allows. It's far tougher to be creative in a vacuum ... or even within the constraints of separate locations. Convenience, access, and physical energy and synergy all matter.
Third ... while audio and teleconferencing are terrific resources, they're still the next best thing to being there. It's tough to get high-quality discussions with time delays and uncertainty about who is talking, when. And ... raise your hand if you've never done other tasks during a group teleconference. Employers know this, too.
In short, I think all the new technologies are more likely to expand, enhance and modify, rather than completely revolutionize, the basic structure and operation of tomorrow's cities and offices. As James McCarten put it in the InnoVisions piece ... "the laws of the office are about as hard to change as the laws of physics." And in all its ads celebrating the telephone as "the next best thing to being there," the detail Ma Bell left out was just how big the gap was between the "next best thing" ... and the real thing.
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