For the past two days I have had the unexpected (and much appreciated, especially this week) luxury of being able to work from home. This is not exactly new for me. When I was freelancing, I routinely worked from home and typically for extremely long hours, because I could. What’s novel for me now is that I’m working for someone else, but I’m still at home. This bears some thought.
First of all, how is it that I actually can work from home? Well, networking technology, of course. It’s certainly not a surprise to anyone anymore that the business world looks nothing like what it did twenty, ten, or even five years ago. With telephony on its way to becoming free (ala Skype), video conferencing becoming increasingly prolific, and mobile PDA devices that give people access to email, instant messaging, and web access on the go, we’ve never been more connected.
As a result, there’s no reason, technically, why I can’t work from home, from the office, from a friend’s house, from a coffee shop, or from a boat in the ocean as long as my connection is fast enough. That very fact alone, decoupling the physical location of the workplace from the activity of work itself, was one of the very first motivators that pushed me into technology as a career path.
Being physically where I want to be and feel comfortable is a hugely important part of how productive I feel. The key bit in that phrase is where I want to be; just being mobile isn’t really decoupling the workplace from the work, it’s just working in more than one place. That can be fun (for those, like me, who enjoy travelling), but it’s missing the point.
In the future, as technology continually finds new and more effective and comfortable ways to keep our connections to more of our work available longer and cheaper, more people will begin to realize the benefit of working where they want to. I would even dare to optimistically suggest that this fact alone will increase everyone’s overall productivity by several orders of magnitude because giving people the choice of what environment suits their needs and mood will make people happier, and happier people do better work. This future has always been my goal, and learning about networking and remote management tools early on was a manifestation of this desire. My obsession with mastering complex VNC and SSH tunneling configurations was an early example.
So other than the fact that technology has decoupled the workplace from working (or, gives the possibility of decoupling, anyway, since most of the time I do actually have to go to some physical location in my current job), what other benefits can it bring? In a word, I say specializtion.
In a practical sense, however, what is specialization? We all know the word, and it’s clear that with advancements in technology in all industries more and more specialized sources of this, that, or the other thing have cropped up. Companies who were once manufacturing giants like BMW are now honing in on their differentiators and hammering the marketplace with what they’re best at—marketing cars (not manufacturing them), in BMW’s case. (See Wikinomics for the reference.) At the same time, other firms that are better skilled at the things others are weaker on have come to fill the void, and this is the crux of issues such as outsourcing and globalization.
This move towards honing strengths and farming out weaknesses drives specialization even further. Having each company or individual working in a more collaborative environment better enables the end result to have the best of all possible worlds while at the same time not penalizing (indeed, actually encouraging) specialists to contribute their efforts. But the question still stands: why is this a perk?
Isn’t it bad that specialization is becoming not merely a nice-to-have, but a requirement to keep yourself employed or your business in the black? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
I see this ever-increasing specialization as a positive step for the worker because it means he or she will have to spend less time dealing with uninteresting problems, whatever they are for her. In the past, an entrepeneur had to not only be skilled in his business, but also had to focus strongly on being a vigilant accountant, salesman, and strategist. These things aren’t going away, but the amount of effort and time required to do them right is going way, way down.
Specialized companies that offer extremeley targetted services like Vebio, a web site that let’s freelancers and consultants keep accurate timesheets and invoices, are filling in the gaps. With more of these services cropping up all the time, motivated business people can spend a greater chunk of their energy actually tackling the problems they want to, instead of the ones they have to.
Not only that, but the reverse is true as well. With increasing options to take advantage of specialized services and products, people who will be more versatile and able to adapt quickly and effectively to more specializations will see more work and opportunities coming their way. In effect, being a specialist at specilizing in something will increase your implied odds of success in whatever task you undertake more than ever before. The more able you are to apply specialized skills to a broad range of problems, the more valuable your skill set.
So technology is driving many great things for the every day worker. Even though these perks haven’t touched a large population of the workforce yet, I believe everyone will at least begin to feel them in a few more years. Businesses that don’t adapt will lose employees to opportunities that offer a better work-life balance. Our society will have to adjust to the idea that the 9-5 isn’t as efficient as it once was (and is still often thought to be).
Especially when more folks from my generation join the workplace (I realized recently that I was in some ways unfortunately too damn early to the party), the generation that has been socialized in cyberspace just as much as they have been in meatspace, the very structure of our hierarchical corporate foundations will shift beneath our feet. And you know what, God bless that change.