I was reading the Oct 2008 edition of Wired magazine and Brendan Koerner wrote an intriguing article about telecommuting. One of the main ideas put forward in the article was that it could make serious economic sense for companies to forget offices and just have all their staff telecommute. Since I do some telecommuting myself I started to think about the pros and cons.
There is certainly a huge attraction to teleworking. The amount of commute time saved is incredible. It also allows a certain freedom with regards to work / life balance. The telecommute supporting technology is also readily available and fantastic to use. A lot of people use these tools as their primary communication mechanism even when they are in the office. Over the years I have had to remind colleagues to stop e-mailing each other (and cc'ing everybody else) when they could just stand up and talk to each other over the partition!
The concept of companies going completely virtual is an interesting one. For many companies it could be a real possibility and could achieve the financial savings mentioned in the Wired article. However, would it be practical?
Companies need customers. Most of these customers want to meet you from time to time and like to see an office with people in it. Is this the only reason for an office? No, but breaking this cultural norm will take a long long time.
I believe there are two other reasons why a fully virtual environment may not be fully achievable. Firstly, the social interaction. Humans like contact with each other in person. Phones, e-mail, online forums, video conferencing don't quite go far enough. We still need contact in person.
The second reason is a more practical one. Not every employee (and in fact, probably most) don't have the space at home to facilitate a good working environment. Many are not disciplined enough to work efficiently and equally, many managers are not equipped (with skills or tools) to manage in a virtual environment. Out of sight, out of mind. Can all of this be overcome? Absolutely. But it won't be tomorrow.
In my opinion the best approach is a hybrid one. Don't rule out telecommuting because there are huge benefits. But don't go all extreme and knock down your building either! Embrace the best of both environments. Invest in the technologies to make seamless working environments for employees no matter where they are. Embrace changes in business processes to allow for remote workers.
Finally, stop calling it telecommuting or teleworking. Change your thinking, your business processes, your technology to just talking about interacting with your people. It shouldn't matter where they are - in an office, at home, in a hotel, in a coffee shop, in another office in a different country, in your customers office. If you start thinking like this then you can really move that dial.