Try to imagine a business without an office. A business where everyone works remotely, on mobiles, tablets and laptops, whenever and wherever they choose. There are no desks, no water cooler conversations, no office politics.
For those organisations still very much tied to the physical workplace, it might seem like an impossible future. But for others, it's closer than you might think.
More and more employees are now working remotely, as new and innovative technologies allow them to interact with colleagues and clients from anywhere in the world. According to business insight firm International Data Corporation (IDC), which specialises in technology, 1.3 billion people will work remotely using mobile technology by 2015. That's 37.2% of the entire workforce.
And it seems to be paying off. Companies that allow their staff to work from home, from their car, a business centre or even a café are reporting boosts in productivity from a more motivated workforce enjoying a better work/life balance.
Mobile working can be a green and time-effective alternative to traditional commuting, while also cutting costs. Central office costs can be cut significantly by introducing hot-desking: one UK council plans to save £1 million through flexible working and hot-desking.
With all those benefits, it's not surprising that flexible working is on the rise. In Britain, a survey by telecoms firm O2 reveals that almost two thirds of businesses expect to see a 30% increase in the number of employees demanding flexible working, equivalent to seven million people. Already 67% of companies allow staff to connect their personal devices to the business's network.
But although technology can enable the cost and productivity benefits offered by flexible working to become a reality, there is still resistance among some organisations to make the necessary investment. Many managers also prefer to measure staff performance by hours worked rather than their team's output.
In a recent survey of UK executives by BT, 50% of respondents said cost was a barrier to exploring new ways of working, while 49% said senior managers did not recognise the business case for flexible working. And there remain cultural barriers in many industries: more than 90% of lawyers, accountants and management consultants still believe that being in the office on a regular basis is essential for career progression.
Yet for the younger generation, the option to work remotely isn't just a nice-to-have, it's an essential - and they are increasingly demanding it. For Generation Y, social media and mobile devices are the norm in their personal and professional lives.
According to 2011 research by networking giant Cisco, being able to work in a mobile way can be more of a deal-breaker for graduates than salary when it comes to making job choices: 33% of under-30s would prioritise social media freedom, device flexibility and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer.
Axa Business Insurance has sponsored several events looking at the changing world of work, including Youth Enterprise Live at Earls Court in October 2012. Axa managing director Darrell Sansom agrees that remote working will be the norm for people entering the workplace in a few years' time.
"If you look at how people communicate today, it is social media-led, and employers must respond and use technology to help people think and work differently," he says. "Technology gives them the environment to do that at a relatively low cost."
Axa itself has about 40 business consultants working from home. "We provide them with laptops and smartphones," says Sansom. "Increasingly it will be tablets and digital pens to make face-to-face meetings with clients more effective and remove the need for paper forms."
The business policy known as bring your own device (BYOD) is driving the mobile working market, despite its real and perceived risks, such as data loss and information leaks (see box on page 48). In fact, according to Vodafone UK's enterprise commercial director Peter Boucher, the personal technology owned by many employees is more powerful than the technology supplied by their IT department.
"Younger people have a different view of the workplace, and their loyalty to companies is different. We are seeing organisations offer graduates tablet devices in order to attract the best talent," says Vodafone's Boucher.
About one fifth of Vodafone's 5,900 head office staff work remotely each day and Boucher says this has seen productivity levels rise by up to 20%. "Managers must ask themselves why staff need to come into the office and question whether they really need them to be there at all," he adds.
There are no personal offices or desks at Vodafone, with everyone, including managers, allocated only one filing cabinet drawer for storage. The company has created a culture of hot-desking and collaborative workspaces, including what it calls 'huddle' areas, where people can congregate and discuss work issues. Boucher says improvements in video conferencing technology mean all meetings are now video-enabled. The company also uses Microsoft Lync instant messaging software for audio conferences.
This new way of working is something that Peter Thomson, visiting executive fellow at Henley Business School and co-author of the book Future Work - How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, knows much about. He argues that organisations must transform the way they arrange work and the HR department must keep up to date with the latest technology and not leave all the knowledge within the IT team.
"The desk only existed because someone had to physically be in a place in order to do their job or to be found by others," says Thomson. "Technology has broken these links so a desk becomes meaningless in many situations."
Thomson says companies must not see mobile working as a quick-fix way to cut desks and therefore costs. He points out how employers still have a duty of care and must ensure health and safety issues are not compromised wherever someone is working.
In an ideal situation, all this technology should lead to greater productivity when working remotely, but this is not always the case. So what can companies do to ensure that increasing their usage of technology facilitates work, rather than dominates it?
International information technology services company Atos Consulting is tackling that question head on. It wants to become a zero email company and make more use of social media. Senior vice president Lee Timmins says the company is thinking differently about the communication, data and training requirements of its consultants who are generally working at clients' offices.
"This is about putting technology in the background so it supports everything someone does and does not dominate it," he says.
Rather than expecting its staff to trawl through huge volumes of email, Atos Consulting uses Blue Kiwi enterprise social software, which acts as a social hub for the workplace. Staff share and collaborate from different locations to process, prioritise and act on work documents and information. Atos also encourages cloud computing.
Taking the use of cloud technology one step further is technology provider Sonovate, which has set up its business entirely on the cloud, and very much practices what it preaches.
The company launched in March 2012 specifically to provide recruitment agencies with cloud-based administration solutions so agency staff can work flexibly and remotely when visiting employers located across the country. The software lets recruiters manage their complex network of client contacts by being able to pick up correspondence from anywhere.
Founder Richard Prime admits that recruitment is a sales environment and people do thrive on the buzz of the office, but says that some remote working does bring productivity improvements.
"Employers are more confident now about the cloud and the security it offers, and the technology is there to support small and medium enterprises that want to change the way they work, especially those with only a few members of staff."
Remote working is nothing new, of course, with employees in large corporations working from satellite offices around the world and accessing central computer systems for years. Yet there has been a decline in the use of traditional secure client virtual private networks to access files and applications on corporate systems.
"Instead, you'll find that a large percentage of corporate applications these days have web-based front-ends, and are often more or less indistinguishable from applications installed on the desktop," says Robert Rutherford, founder and managing director of IT support services company QuoStar. "Not only are they feature-rich and easy to support, they also lend themselves to being published over the internet for roaming workers to access. A typical example of this type of technology would be Microsoft's Outlook Web Access."
Another favourite technology for remote access and general working is known as thin client. This is where staff open a virtual desktop residing on the central server. Employees access through a simple computing device called a thin client, which contains no hard drives or other moving parts and relies on the server for all the computing resources that someone might need.
"It allows remote employees to work as if they were sitting in the office, with all of their applications and files available to them," says Rutherford. "They can also use this technology internally, which means they can be free from the confines of a single PC when working in the office. This model enables hot-desking."
Over the next 10 years, mobile technology will advance significantly. Industry experts predict improvements in voice recognition software for smartphones and tablets and the launch of killer apps and devices. Mike England, social media and content director at exhibition and event organiser Imago Techmedia, predicts an increase in Mobile Device Management (MDM) solutions, which could help companies overcome any security issues. MDM platforms enforce passwords and allow the IT team to remotely wipe data from lost or stolen devices, provide a centralised audit trail for tracking log-ins and configuration changes and deliver mobile apps securely to an employee's personal device.
With technology moving at such a pace, it's clear that the way we work may soon change for good. But as Vodafone's Boucher says, technology may have made remote working easier, but "there are times when you need to be in an office and meet face-to-face." It seems that there is still a place for the office. For now, at any rate.
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