With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home.
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association.
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and Meetingroom.io available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning.
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for.
The reasons seemed to be twofold. Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
Somehow I doubt it. At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat.
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer!