Today's always-on workforce never has to miss a beat — in or out of the office, they're taking calls, answering emails, Skyping with clients and colleagues, and getting work done, wherever they need to.
These types of remote-work situations have become quite common, as has the number of individuals telecommuting on a full- or part-time basis. The old attitude of "out of sight, out of mind" is falling away in the modern business world, and remote employees are just as much a part of a company's culture and success as their in-office colleagues.
As the population of telecommuters continues to grow, experts weighed in on the present and future of remote work. [8 Work-from-Home Myths Debunked]
How remote work has evolved
There was a time when "working from home" as the modern workforce knows it wasn't even a possibility. If your colleagues and business partners wanted to get in touch with you when you were out of the office, they couldn't email, text or instant-message you. You would have needed to provide an alternate phone number (or pager or fax number) and communicate that way. And full-time "remote" positions were very different from what they are today.
"Ten years ago, remote employment basically meant a telemarketing or customer service position at below minimum wage," said Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at website design company Blue Fountain Media. "It rarely was connected with a full-time career. Nowadays, technology affords us the ability to get the same job done, no matter where in the world we are. [It has] enabled us to be in contact with co-workers or clients at any time."
One of the most helpful technologies in making remote work seamless is videoconferencing. Live video feeds help out-of-office workers see and speak to one another in real time, anywhere they are, which is the next best thing to a face-to-face meeting. But this capability wouldn't be possible without the widespread broadband Internet adoption that's occurred over the past 10 to 15 years.
"Video over the Internet could not really happen until the vast majority of consumers had broadband deployed everywhere," said Tim Treanor, CEO of OVS Media, a company that specializes in live broadcasting government and nonprofit Web content. "Corporate events and meetings are being webcast live over the Internet to reach stakeholders who could not attend, and smaller internal meetings. This content can now be available live over the Internet for collaboration for remote workers and teams."
Certain companies have even done away with renting a traditional office and instead run their business out of a shared co-working space to accommodate their largely remote workforce.
"Shared office spaces, where remote employees can gather to work, have been created and are more widely available in different cities," Lambert said. "This in itself represents the growing amount of remote workers in recent years."
The current state of remote work
Because of these advances in communication technology and Internet access, teleworking has become a fairly accepted practice many offices, both in the U.S. and globally. A recent survey by Web conferencing software PGi found that 79 percent of office workers worldwide work remotely at least once a week, with the most popular form of telework being a combination of in-office and out-of-office workdays.
Jeff Corbin, CEO and founder of theEMPLOYEEapp, an internal communications platform by APPrise Mobile, said that attitudes toward remote work are changing, and employees have come to expect the ability to work from anywhere.
"There is an expectation that individuals should have the ability and freedom to work remotely and not be confined to an office setting or desk," Corbin told Business News Daily. "There is also an expectation that employees should have instantaneous access to what they need to do their work."
The PGi survey reflects this growing workforce demand: 55 percent of nonteleworking respondents said they wished they could work remotely, and 60 percent of those who do telework said they would leave their current job for a similar full-time remote position at the same pay rate.
"Flexible work is on the rise globally," said Sean O'Brien, executive vice president of strategy at PGi. "Employees across regions are asking, if not demanding, more flexible hours for a multitude of reasons — long commutes, better work-life balance or even a change of scenery. Our recent survey confirms that workers are pressing for evolution away from the physical office and toward flexible work — and businesses that make flexible work a staple benefit for their associates."
While 66 percent of PGi respondents said their organizations' attitudes toward remote work were becoming more positive, there are still some companies on the fence about allowing employees to work outside the office — and that approach can be detrimental, said Liz Roney, an account manager in WinterWyman's technology contract staffing division.
"Organizations that have been resistant to letting employees work remotely are shortchanging themselves by limiting their access to top talent," Roney said. "More ... candidates require remote work as a condition of employment. Taking the option off the table can prevent you from attracting key people ... your organization needs. Making it worse, the top candidates you miss out on may be headed to your competitors who are offering a remote position."
What the future holds
With the growing shift toward remote work, will the traditional "office job" go extinct? Our sources don't think so, but they do believe the notion of "work" as a place you go is quickly becoming obsolete.
"Our world is evolving so that work is no longer a place, but an amalgamation of digital and physical work happening through independent, team and cross-functional collaboration," O'Brien said. "The 'digital office' is the future of work, and as we see business technologies like unified communications and mobile apps continue to evolve, the physical office will become less about where work happens and more about where workers occasionally gather."
"The office job will still be the mainstay of the work force and our economy for years to come," Treanor added. "What will change in the workplace is that emerging video-streaming technologies will allow more remote workers to participate in content and collaborate from anywhere globally."
To truly reach this point, however, it's clear that current organizations need to make some improvements to their remote work policies and capabilities. First, O'Brien advised implementing a formal company policy, rather than allowing remote work on a case-by-case basis. This will boost employee productivity, loyalty and business growth, he said.
If a company is concerned about productivity and performance issues associated with a company-wide ability to work from home, Lambert recommended creating standard key performance indicators (KPIs) for both management and employees. This way, she said, remote team members are aware of expectations, and their performance can be monitored.
In terms of technology, Corbin said investing in the latest collaborative cloud software —especially solutions that work well on mobile devices — will also be important for improving remote work conditions.
"As companies recognize the importance of remote work and the fact that their employees ... demand instantaneous and easy access to information, companies will start to rethink how technology plays into how their employees do their work," Corbin said. "In the coming years, we will see a realization that existing legacy systems don't suffice, and hence, investment must be made in new technologies, especially mobile."
"Companies are providing flex workers with basic hardware [such as a] laptop and smartphone, but not all the technologies needed to build a digital workplace, like Wi-Fi, instant messaging, Web conferencing, team workspaces and enterprise social networks," O'Brien added. "Building a digital workplace gives your employees the tools they need to collaborate and work from anywhere, anytime and on any device — and that's the key to building productive modern teams that deliver business results."