The emphasis that modern society places on socialization has influenced the workforce a lot. Ironically, it seems to have sprung from the digital age. Digital messaging and electronic correspondence probably seemed distant and impersonal to previous generations, but today they’ve strengthened our reliance on open communication. So, not surprisingly, corporate culture seized the opportunity to capitalize on the trend. The problem, as Amar Singh noted in Medium, is that open offices “misunderstand psychology and design.” They also reinforce a bias against remote work. However, the push toward mobility continues to gain steam. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 24% of full-time employees perform most of their work at home. To really dissect the elements that will shape the future of work, we may need to stop focusing on the hip perks of shared office spaces with beer taps and video games. Instead, it could be time to explore the advantages of supporting a mobile workforce in an increasingly mobile world.
Remote Work Isn’t Remotely Novel
In her recent article for Ars Technica, Kate Cox posed a solid question: “Dozens of studies find remote workers happy and productive. Why not let them be?”
“The idea of remote work, as we currently imagine it, goes back about 50 years,” Cox noted. “The fight over whether employees should be allowed to do remote work—whether they can in fact be trusted with it—goes back almost exactly as long.” She brought up a series of thought-provoking points that illustrate the long history of this debate.
- The first documented use of the word "telecommute" showed up in 1974 when The Economist wrote: “As there is no logical reason why the cost of telecommunication should vary with distance, quite a lot of people by the late 1980s will telecommute daily to their London offices while living on a Pacific island if they want to.”
- In the 1980 book The Third Wave, futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler discussed how technology could enable low-cost work stations in any home.
- A study in the 1980s, commissioned by the state of California, sought to examine the potential benefits and costs of “expanding telework among state employees.” The final report was published in 1990, concluding that remote work “enhances the quality of work life for telecommuters, including those with disabilities. Telecommuting more than pays its way ... there are societal benefits as well.”
Open to Distractions
We cherish openness, interaction, engagement, and inclusion. We’ve also tried to translate those values into the physical architecture of our office spaces. Somehow that paved the way for the cool factor, where the settlers on the frontiers of Startup Nation introduced pets, table tennis, wine bars, keggers, nap nooks, and rooms without walls or doors.
“The open office sounds great in theory,” Singh wrote. “Put everyone in one room, and you’ll get more synergy than you can dynamically optimize. Marketing and Design will work side by side on skunk works projects, Engineering and Product can knock out questions and bugs immediately, and communication will flow through the organization naturally.”
The often ignored question, though, is how much work gets done when everyone’s sitting around singing kumbaya? “Once I went into the office, there were constant distractions that weren’t optional — other employees, dogs barking, impromptu meetings, birthday celebrations,” Singh explained. “It was very difficult to get into flow states and incredibly easy to be broken from them. Of all the places I could work, my desk at the office was often the worst option.”
As of 2015, according to the Boston Globe, 80% of businesses had adopted open floor plans. The concept revolves around team synergy, on-demand discourse, and some nebulous sense of “serendipity,” which is supposed to inject creativity into the process. But as the Globe’s editorial concluded, open offices sound great -- until you work in one.
By most accounts, performance actually suffers as a direct result of this serendipity. As far back as 1997, while studying an oil and gas company that transitioned to open spaces, the New Yorker determined that the experiment produced a wide range of detrimental effects:
The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.
Auckland University of Technology researchers further discovered that open offices often gave rise to antisocial behaviors. As Rachel Morrison, one of the study’s authors, observed:
Although prior researchers have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication and cooperation, our results indicated that coworker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements, when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others.
Struggling to find the best talent on the market? Fun perks, bring doggy to work days, and foosball tables probably aren’t the panaceas we’ve been sold. If there’s any doubt, consider the notoriously perilous situation of WeWork, which went from a $47 billion valuation to talk of bankruptcy in six weeks. Why? Extravagant spending on lavish luxuries and travel in the name of sales didn’t help. But, as George Schultze wrote in Forbes:
The real problem with WeWork is that its whole business model is flawed with excessive leverage. There’s really nothing special about what they do—providing shared office space to short term tenants. But when the economy starts to turn and new business startups decrease or fail more because of the risk of recession, that’s when a company like WeWork could really be exposed and have tremendous downside risk. That’s because it has long-term fixed expenses that aren’t matched with its short-term clients who can come and go as they choose.
WeWork, in a way, attempted to capitalize on the momentum of remote work. But by pairing long-term leases with short-term occupants, the model became questionable. After all, technology has made it possible, and even efficient, to work from your living room.
The market has become a very big place, and the most skilled talent aren’t necessarily the people in your neighborhood. If you want to recruit the cream of the crop, it might be time to bring your business to them—in a manner of speaking. Today’s top professionals prefer freedom, flexibility, and mobility. To engage and retain them, we need to champion a mobile work culture. But we also need to do it right, without sacrificing communication, community, and a feeling of belonging.
The Age of Digital Nomads
Human history, for anthropologists, used to be measured by the tools early people produced. This led to the three-age system: stone, bronze and iron. If we were to continue defining our evolution through elements and the products they enabled, we might very well christen this the Lithium Age.
One of the most salient qualities of modern economics and labor is the on-demand nature both are embracing. This project-based “as a service” paradigm defines how we live and work today. Mobile technologies not only make this possible, they’re also the catalyst. We lead online lives. We rely on wireless, on-demand devices to accomplish our goals, both on the job and at home. As a result, we’re also witnessing the rise of a truly global community -- a concept that has transcended philosophy to take its place as a new reality. Borders, both physical and ideological, are disappearing.
Mobility enables all of this, yet not without a sense of irony. Although businesses are eager to capitalize on the on-demand economy, few are embodying the essence of it by creating on-demand offices: a mobile work culture for a mobile workforce.
The Case for Mobility
Each year in the staffing industry, we see advances in digital ecosystems that streamline the ways talent integrate with their peers, employers, recruiters, and the world in general.
Immediacy and on-demand access are the themes driving workers and business leaders alike. Companies that fail to create mobile-friendly job tools will be left behind. According to Pew Research, 40% of job seekers rely on mobile devices exclusively when scouting and applying for positions. That figure rises to 53% among 18- to 29-year-olds. Close to 80% of U.S. candidates say they would apply for jobs on their phones if HR tech companies streamlined the process and launched platforms designed specifically for the mobile experience.
Anyone who wants to reach and engage prospects must champion a positive mobile experience. Yet, that’s just the beginning. Our efforts can’t stop at recruiting. Workers are increasingly turning to non-traditional employment arrangements to satisfy their work-life goals. They’re setting their own schedules, choosing their employers and determining their own work arrangements. They rely less on the auspices of corporations and more on their entrepreneurial spirit. In order to continue attracting and retaining this nomadic talent, we need to make our business cultures just as fluid and mobile.
The Business Benefits of Mobility
According to CITO Research, businesses recognize the power and benefits of mobility. Nearly 70% of all respondents cited improved business processes as the motivation to adopt a more mobile culture. And studies from several years ago already proved the virtues of remote work and virtual offices, especially in context of reducing overhead costs. Today, however, a push toward mobility is accomplishing much more: increased satisfaction, a stronger competitive edge, new revenue opportunities, cost savings and attracting new talent.
As Daniel Newman, co-CEO of V3B, wrote in Forbes, “Employee mobility leads to 30 percent better processes and 23 percent more productivity -- and 100 percent more satisfied employees.” A mobile work culture offers a wealth of benefits to modern companies.
- Mobility, Newman explained, allows outdated business processes to be updated. Performance reviews, for example, have become more effective and meaningful through mobile models: “Performance management tools are available for companies and offer regular checkpoints, goal appraisals, and performance objectives.”
- Mobility enhances employee engagement and leads to a more connected team.
- When employees work from their home locations, they can better manage their time -- taking care of family obligations while scheduling work during off-hours to meet deadlines.
Most importantly, mobile workers are happier and more productive: “Mobility increases employee happiness -- and we all know that happier employees get more done. Empowered employees display more productivity and efficiency while they’re on the clock. Mobile devices and platforms like the cloud permit heightened mobility and encourage creative innovation without being strapped to a desk. This freedom results in a more efficient worker, a competent workplace, and a better bottom line.”
Creating a Mobile Business Culture Without Losing Touch
The most progressive organizations have already become early adopters of enterprise social networks. Slack and Google’s G Suite, for example, have become fairly ubiquitous in companies of all sizes. Through mobile platforms like these, workers from any location can communicate and collaborate with other team members in real time. Combined with breakthroughs in streaming video apps, a mobile work culture begins to mirror a physical office space.
Live video and messaging systems are also changing the way workers interact and learn. That’s a key finding in a study of more than 4,000 international employers by the BlueJeans Network. Over 70% of respondents believed video had improved the way they connected with colleagues. Another 69% felt that live video systems in the workplace bolstered retention across all levels of the organization.
We have all the tools at our disposal to create a mobile work culture without abandoning interpersonal rapport, real-time collaboration, and live communications with co-workers, no matter where we are.
Creating an on-demand office environment for mobile talent requires only a commitment and a few suggestions to ensure consistency, security and buy in. Here are some best practices, courtesy of Daniel Newman:
- Make a concerted effort to identify key apps that fit your business culture, and promote those apps within the company.
- Also choose apps or mobility platforms that address security issues likely to impact your organization, talent and industry. Close to 70% of employees who resist mobility cite security and privacy concerns.
- Invest in apps that optimize your company’s core operational and process efficiencies. This helps foster user adoption—employees will quickly realize the benefits because the systems are making their work easier.
- Select apps and systems that offer robust multichannel support. This eliminates the risk of technical issues for people with different device types (phones, tablets), operating systems, versions and so forth. You’ll also curb costs, as employees can use their own devices rather than the company purchasing compatible units.
In the fiercely competitive race to procure the finest talent, companies must expand their reach and develop ways to bring the work to the workers. Technologies are helping to make this possible, allowing for borderless societies and workplaces. Outside the office, they’re strengthening human experiences, health, lifestyles, and perspectives. We’re living in a dynamic world with equally dynamic talent. If we insist on the static processes or counterproductive office environments, we may find ourselves mere spectators in the march of progress.