The future of working remotely

What does it mean to run an office in the cloud? Will we still need physical office spaces in the future?

A few decades ago, the term working remotely would’ve conjured images of lonely lighthouse keepers or arduous months spent on offshore oil rigs.

Now when we talk about remote work, we’re referring to the growing phenomenon of workers who perform their roles from home while communicating with their employers, colleagues and clients via phone or email.

As suburbs creep farther from cities and commuter traffic crawls along clogged motorways, remote work has been heralded as the solution to improving employee morale and productivity while simultaneously reducing operational overheads.

However, it seems not everyone is convinced it’s a good idea to let large segments of their workforce stay at home (who knows, in their pyjamas?) every day.

Many well-known businesses are instead channelling their efforts into creating workplaces that their employees are actually excited about showing up to each day.

For these organisations, collaboration and innovation are paramount, and they believe their organisations are more successful when their employees are able to share ideas with each other face to face.

The daily slog

Until now, commuting to work has been an unavoidable part of daily life. It’s been that way since the industrial revolution.

Before railways, workers would seldom live more than an hour’s walk away from their place of work. In most cases, they’d actually live and work in the same spot.

The term ‘commuting’ was coined in the 1840s as workers in the US were offered discounted or ‘commuted’ rail tickets to travel back and forth between their homes in distant suburbs and the cities in which they worked.

These days, millions of Londoners jam themselves into crowded carriages for quick trips on the Tube while LA residents enjoy the personal space of their own vehicle for torturous hours on gridlocked motorways.

In Australia, the average daily commute back and forth is just under an hour a day, and the majority of people complete that in their own vehicle.

Governments tasked with combatting the chokehold of traffic on city arteries are constantly held to task by constituents asking for more buses, trains and extra passing lanes.

It’s no surprise then that governments are frequently the champions of remote work arrangements.

As Prime Minister in 2012, Julia Gillard set a target for the Australian Public Sector to increase the number of workers who work remotely once a week from 4 percent to 12 percent by 2020.

Across the entire workforce, it’s been estimated that around one in four people currently work from home at least once a week. It’s estimated that only 1 percent of those actually have a formal agreement with their employer.

This suggests the majority of remote work is the result of individual arrangements between an employee and their direct manager, as opposed to concrete organisational policies.

For smaller businesses that need to carefully manage their overheads, having fewer people in a physical office can work to their advantage. They’re able to manage these unique arrangements much more easily than a large enterprise.

A recent survey of business owners in the UK found that 59 percent of SME business owners believe remote working is the future of business.

While remote working arrangements can improve productivity and work-life balance for some employees, MYOB’s Head of People and Performance, Alla Keogh says it’s best not to be too prescriptive when it comes to policies for remote work.

“It’s up to managers and their team members to determine what’s going to work best for the business and the individual,” Keogh says.

“We try to be agile and flexible when it comes to the way in which people work as it can also depend on the role they’re performing, and how well it lends itself to a remote arrangement.”

Keogh also points out it’s hard to beat face time when establishing relationships and solving problems.

This is a sentiment that was espoused by Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer when she famously banned all employees from working from home in 2013.

While this may seem like a backwards step in terms of innovative HR policies, innovation and collaboration was at the heart of the matter according to Mayer.

She used the example of separate divisions from Flickr and Yahoo Weather who spotted an opportunity to integrate elements of their apps, simply through informal conversations around the office.

It’s this kind of innovation that CEOs across every industry are desperately trying to incubate, which is why so many are focusing on building the innovative workspaces that better foster collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

If these walls could talk

Office spaces have come a long way from colourless cubes of computers and conference rooms in recent years.

Google has lead the way with their creative and downright zany office designs with everything from putting greens, basketball courts and Segway tracks taking pride of place in their original Mountain View office, aptly titled the Googleplex.

Google’s approach is now commonplace for enterprises whose business model relies on innovation, as they seek to maximise the number of chance encounters their employees have with each other away from their desks.

Alli Keogh says this is where many businesses are beginning to focus on the concept of ‘third spaces’, an idea first posited by sociologist Ray Oldenburg.

“If you think of your ‘first place’ as your home and the ‘second place’ as your office, the ‘third place’ is a neutral shared space that can serve a variety of purposes.

“Third spaces already occur in every office, but as our work styles change, these spaces are now being curated and planned for as areas for impromptu collaboration, communication or contemplation.”

This philosophy is reflected in MYOB’s state-of-the-art new facilities in Richmond, Melbourne.

Among the many creative design features in the new office such as moveable walls, garage-inspired spaces and exercise areas, MYOB has created what they call ‘inception’ rooms, dedicated to exploring ideas, complete with flexible furniture and digital tools for co-creation and collaboration.

“The vision for the new workplace was to create elastic spaces that adapt in order to enhance performance,” Keogh says.

“We wanted the workspace to reflect MYOB’s strong culture and guiding principles of being innovative, productive, flexible, fun and evolving.”

While it’s still difficult to prosecute a case for either, for now, it appears hasty to declare the death of traditional workplaces in favour of everyone working from home.

While digital communication tools have made it easier than ever to connect with colleagues from anywhere in the world, it seems technology has a long way to go before it can do away with physical spaces and human interaction as proven tools for improving productivity and morale.