Telework October 2011
The vast growth in home broadband connectivity that has occurred since the late 1990s has had a transformative impact on many connected-home-application domains—especially those related to entertainment. Many analysts also predicted that similar transformation would occur as companies embraced telework—the practice of allowing employees to work from remote locations (including their own homes) instead of organized office settings—on a wide scale. Although a large number of jobs in developed countries are amenable to telework (for example, some 45% or more of US jobs are compatible with at least part-time telework, according to the Telework Research Network), telework remains an exception to the norm even among companies that embrace the practice. Will the connected home one day become the primary place of work for a majority of individuals with telework-compatible jobs? Before knowledge workers become fully free to be productive from any location, companies, workers, and technology providers will need to address the challenges of transitioning to a primarily at-home workforce.
Company Needs and Expectations
One of the biggest obstacles to the widespread growth of telework practices has been managers' reluctance to embrace the concept. To implement a telework program successfully, managers must adopt results-oriented-management practices with which they may have little familiarity, depending on the type of workplace in question. For occupations in which an employee produces a readily quantifiable output (such as lines of computer code or a number of processed medical-billing reports), managers may have little difficulty adopting the kind of objective-setting, compliance-tracking, and quality-evaluation practices that can help guide teleworkers toward maintaining the same consistency of work output that they would maintain in an office setting. For office occupations that encompass a more wide-ranging, more dynamic, and less readily quantifiable work product, managers may have a much harder time adopting results-oriented strategies successfully.
Organizing and managing teams of teleworkers also presents potential difficulties. Traditional methods of team building and management have emphasized the types of social bonding and interaction that happen in person. Managing virtual teams appears to require a novel set of skills that involves deep familiarity and comfort with the myriad asynchronous communication tools that "digital natives" use routinely, suggesting that the widespread adoption of telework may naturally follow a generational shift in organizations' middle management. For existing managers, developing and mastering results-oriented strategies and becoming comfortable with asynchronous mixed-media communication requires the investment of money and time to achieve an uncertain result.
Perhaps more important, embracing telework requires not only a shift in management practices but also a shift in many of the basic assumptions that underlie the fundamental nature of office work. Making such a costly and unfamiliar transition can be very difficult for organizations, and the short history of telework includes many examples of organizations that embrace telework in the face of external disruption only to see adoption patterns stall once those conditions pass. For example, the US federal government had a 400% increase in telework between 2005 and 2006, driven by concerns about continuity of operations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But US federal telework has grown far more slowly since then—despite new laws that have strengthened telework-policy support. Many Japanese companies recently expanded telework policies following the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, which reduced the electricity-generating capacity of the northern half of the country. Perhaps those companies will continue to lead in embracing telework even after the region regains stability.
Worker Needs and Expectations
Although many companies now view telework policies as a must-have for attracting and retaining employee talent, not every employee who can telework wants to telework. Many employees find the experience of working in an office desirable and compelling. People may feel social isolation when working from home and crave the company and stimulation available at an office. Some employees may have home environments that are too small or otherwise not amenable to telework, or they may find it difficult to self-motivate outside of an office environment because the home environment is too distracting for sustained productivity. Conversely, other people may feel uncomfortable about letting their work life blur with their home life and worry that telework means they can never really leave work behind.
Even so, future trends appear increasingly likely to motivate more employees to embrace telework out of necessity rather than desire. For example, demographic trends in many developed countries, especially Japan, have made it necessary for more young people to work from home at least part of the time to provide care for elderly relatives. Increases in fuel prices have also been a very strong motivator for individuals to embrace telework—particularly in car-centric cultures, such as that of the United States, in which people tend to have long commutes and relatively few desirable public-transportation options. And the increase in the proportion of digital natives in the workplace—a demographic shift that is already well under way but will accelerate substantially over the next five years—will very likely correspond with an increase in the proportion of employees and managers who wish to telework.
The information-technology aspects of telework are very mature in many respects, with most medium-to-large companies relying on virtual private networks (VPNs), company-issued end-user hardware, and company-managed email, database, and desktop-virtualization services backed by well-defined security policies. Small companies have tended to rely on a mix of company-managed services and web-based services with little focus on (or understanding of) potential network-security issues, yet they have also tended to evade many of the kinds of information-security threats that larger companies have long been subject to. However, a number of current trends are presenting new security risks and complexities for businesses seeking to expand telework in the future.
Perhaps the most important emerging IT trend affecting telework is the tendency for individuals to want to use their own devices (including smartphones, notebook computers, and tablets) to connect to employers' networks. IT professionals often refer to this phenomenon as "bring your own device" (BYOD). Large companies have long forbidden (and continue to forbid) BYOD because of the many security vulnerabilities that it can introduce into the organization and the cost and complexity of providing IT support for a range of devices; however, companies are generally facing increased pressure from employees at all levels to allow BYOD. The issue of BYOD reaches far outside the telework context. For example, even employees who never work from home might still have a company-issued BlackBerry smartphone to send and receive company email from outside of work. But the outcomes of future BYOD-policy adoptions certainly could affect the future growth of telework policies and employees' adoption of telework options. Broadly speaking, inclusive BYOD policies could help motivate employees to embrace telework and help make telework more productive, allowing the use of whatever device a worker is most comfortable and familiar with. But the costs and risks associated with inclusive BYOD policies could also deter employers from implementing telework schemes that embrace BYOD. Fortunately for employers, more smartphones and tablets that support best-of-breed enterprise-grade security features, such as storing files in an encrypted format, are entering the marketplace. And developments in HTML5, the next-generation markup language, promise to enable enterprise-IT organizations to support diverse BYOD solutions efficiently. Unfortunately, although such features could make it possible for employers to support BYOD while maintaining adequate information security, they do little to reduce the current cost and complexity aspects of BYOD and their associated impacts on telework.
Coupled with the general trend toward regulatory bodies' requiring increased public disclosure of cyberattacks, the overall increase in the prevalence, frequency, and sophistication of cyberattacks is a related emerging IT trend that could complicate telework. Many jurisdictions have adopted security-breach-notice laws that require companies to disclose when certain information about their end users may have been compromised. In some cases, those laws even require companies to compensate impacted users for the breach by paying for credit-reporting or identity-theft-management services. A recent guidance statement from the US Securities and Exchange Commission recommends that companies disclose information-security breaches to investors when such breaches could materially impact the soundness of the investment; legal experts have opined that the recommendation makes the failure to disclose such breaches a potential source of future lawsuits from investors. If large companies respond by tightening security policies, telework and BYOD policies could become much more restrictive in the future. Especially important is the impact of future cybersecurity issues and policies on companies' willingness to embrace cloud-computing solutions in addition to—or in place of—traditional company-managed services.
Company support for cloud services could become an important requirement for also supporting BYOD policies because smartphones and tablets are becoming tightly integrated with the proprietary cloud services that tie into the devices' hardware features and functions. Storage in clouds—both public and private clouds—contributes greatly to enabling people to be productive from diverse locations. But cloud-based storage also introduces attractive targets for mischief makers and criminals. As a result, companies are reviewing security practices for cloud-based solutions in a search for solutions that are convenient for telework yet protected from intrusion.
Communication and Collaboration Tools
One lingering factor that has very likely prevented telework from growing as quickly as it could have is the fragmented marketplace for conferencing and collaboration tools. Many homes today have ample bandwidth to support rich video-telepresence applications, but teleworkers typically still use an array of web-based video-chat services (like the popular Skype) or, far more commonly, conventional telephone-based conference calls to participate in meetings. Some rich telepresence systems for home users are starting to become available at inexpensive price points. For example, Cisco's Umi Telepresence line includes systems that can connect to a user's high-definition television to enable experiences similar to those available using Cisco's high-end in-office telepresence systems (which use large displays and specially configured meeting rooms to create the illusion that participants are seated around a single conference table). And future telepresence systems that use depth cameras (like those found on Microsoft's Kinect) could allow for future mixed-reality conferencing and could help make teleconferencing feel more natural by automatically aligning participants' lines of sight, for example, to improve the sense of eye contact that can be lacking when a worker communicates via video with a distant group.
But such systems will likely continue to face the problem of a heavily fragmented video-telepresence marketplace in which systems from one manufacturer frequently cannot work with those of another. Such a situation makes telepresence much more expensive for companies to deploy to teleworkers and creates problems when teleworkers need to have interactive meetings with participants outside the company (such as collaborators or clients). Market trends in telepresence solutions do not appear to be evolving toward greater compatibility. Instead, telepresence-solution vendors are increasingly attempting to position themselves as full-service communications providers, locking their customers into a single proprietary platform for all their communications needs. A similar level of fragmentation exists for collaboration tools. Even some of the simplest cloud-based tools, such as Google Docs, still do not have flawless and straightforward compatibility with offline Microsoft Office–formatted documents. As of late 2011, even Microsoft Office Live is not fully interoperable with the industry-standard Microsoft Office suite.
In an ideal future, everyone who can work at home will work from home, and telepresence and collaboration tools will be so good that people will feel that they are part of a bustling, exciting, contiguous virtual office that spans the globe. In many ways, such a future might be not only a desirable one but also a necessary one if people wish to effect significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions and energy consumption. But if past patterns regarding telework adoption are any guide, the timing of such an ideal future's arrival remains as uncertain as ever.