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The Future of Work: White Collars Without Borders

Labor experts, management experts or organizational psychologists – all agree that the world of work is undergoing radical change. Tomorrow’s employees, it seems certain, will work with greater flexibly, independence and self-responsibility than ever before. They’ll work in ever-changing teams and projects, and for ever-different employers. And knowledge workers, especially, will be able to work anytime from anywhere…

The prospect of this near-future world is alluring for executives and employees alike. For workers it’s easy to imagine the benefits of increased flexibility – visions of workdays spent in a hammock on the beaches of Zanzibar or San Diego (or at least in the café around the corner). Management, for their part, likes to envision radically lower office expenses and the transformation of their company into a globalized, around-the-clock business operation.

It’s technology, of course, that makes all this possible. Nearly universal broadband Internet coverage and an increasingly stable LTE network allow us to collaborate with people anywhere in the world – and make the restrictions of physical location a thing of the past. Indeed, the benefits of virtual teams collaborating via digital networks are numerous:

  • Work is no longer bound to a specific location .
  • Because employees can start (or continue) working from home, they no longer need to sit in rush-hour traffic; they arrive to work more relaxed and can work more productively.
  • No need for time-consuming, expensive business trips; instead meetings can be conducted in the virtual world or via video conference.
  • Staggered working hours in the Cloud and around the globe reduces waiting times. Product cycles become shorter, worker productivity increases.
  • Because all employees are never in the office at the same time, there is no need to maintain dedicated offices or workstations for 100% of the workforce. Experts estimate that companies can reduce up to 30% of required office space.

Our offices will no longer serve as our “second home” as in the past. Instead, our homes will become second offices.

Of course most people feel most comfortable at home, which is why many of tomorrow’s employees will work directly from home rather than confront the daily commuter crush. As labor experts have predicted for some time now, our offices will no longer serve as our “second home” as in the past. Instead, our homes will become second offices. Many, in fact, will no longer have a permanent office at all. According to the German research institute Fraunhofer IAO, already today only 39% of employees sit at the same workstation every day.

The “future of work” began at IBM way back in 1991, when some 200 of its employees volunteered to give up their offices in favor of workstations outside the office, i.e. “full-time” home offices. Today all 20,000 IBM employees in Germany – whether executives, programmers or administrators – have the option of working from home offices any time. Companies like Deutsche Bank, SAP and BMW take a similar approach, allowing their people to work when and where they want.

On virtual teams: Face-to-face teamwork is better

As always, where there’s an upside, there’s also a down side. Sure – the thought of not having to battle our way through commuter traffic every morning, simply logging on from any computer anywhere in the world to work, discuss and brainstorm is a nice one. But do we really work better this way?

Several years ago Harvard researchers conducted a meta-study which included an analysis of some 35,000 articles published by scientific research teams. They came to a different conclusion. The researchers found that teams that collaborated in the traditional way, i.e. in the same physical location, achieved significantly better results as compared to “virtual” teams. They literally work better together. Or as the authors of the study wrote themselves:

“There are a number of possible explanations for these associations: It may be that physical proximity truly allows for better collaboration, resulting in higher quality research that tends to be cited more often. ” It may also be that physical proximity facilitates knowledge exchange as well as social interaction, which in turn accelerate and improve results.

How do you lead teams of people that hardly see each other?

And there’s a second challenge. How do you lead and manage a team that is scattered across the globe, whose members do not even work at the same time of day? When none of the team members know each other personally, except from emails or video conferences, when no one really knows how the other people in their team work, what motivates them or what kind of strain they might be under, it is certainly not easy to understand what makes them tick, what kind of potential they possess and, above all, who is best suited to take on certain challenges and responsibilities in the future.

So far only a few studies, such as one from the University of Lüneburg, have considered this problem (PDF). And yet it is a challenge that managers have grappled with for some time.

Take the example of Petra Wolf, Marketing Director for Dell Germany. Wolf is based out of Vienna, Austria but is responsible for a team of 18 people spread out across Germany, who work together mainly virtually, i.e. online, and not in person. Her team members communicate with each other primarily via email, telephone and video conferencing, but Wolf herself cannot perform her job without the benefit of face-to-face contact. This is one reason why her work week still resembles a kind of tour of Germany that allows her to meet personally with each team member every two weeks.

“Emails and telephone conferences fulfill their purpose when it comes to execution, i.e. tracking project progress and distributing information, and even feedback and coaching sessions can be conducted by telephone,” says Wolf. But for any kind of creative brainstorming and idea development, physical presence remains absolutely necessary according to Wolf.

Several years ago the American sociologist Jeremy Rifkin coined the term “protean persona” – a reference to the Greek god Proteus who was able to morph into any possible shape, but who had to pay an existential price: he was never able to find himself.

Rifkin sees here an important parallel to modern life – to people who are so connected and interconnected via communications technology, that they lose sight of their own identity and development. The modern working world may seem boundless in its ability to liberate us from the constraints of time and place. But at the same time it forces us – both employees and executives alike – to constantly change, restructure and adapt, and be always “on call”.

No one yet knows what the consequences and costs of this will be.

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