A new poll of over 11,000 workers worldwide by Ipsos and Reuters shows that telecommuting is an increasingly popular choice, especially in non-Western countries. This will come as no surprise to many, but the numbers are higher than some might have guessed. Over 30 percent of workers in India, Mexico, and Indonesia claimed to telecommute regularly, and one in ten overall work from home every day.
It’s tempting to call any work that can be done via telecommute “knowledge work” or the like, but there isn’t enough of that to create these kinds of numbers. The internet has been so incredibly enabling in so many different ways that to limit it to such a narrow category is shortsighted. Many are doing web design or creating product themselves, certainly, but many are also managing entire “virtual” businesses, handling email chains with the Chinese manufacturers on one end and the Singapore design guys on the other, or keeping track of orders and customer queries via an online clearing house. There is very little that can be done in an office that must be done in an office, and worldwide in developing markets the cost savings of that fact are being welcomed with open arms.
Interestingly, it is in already-productive countries like Germany, Sweden, and Japan that telecommuting is viewed with suspicion. On one hand it is surprising: these highly wired and progressive countries are welcoming of technology in so many forms that it seems unlike them to reject it in this one. But part of their success is in their social infrastructure: cities, factories, offices, large companies in business for decades or even centuries. Telecommuting makes labor unit-based and decentralizes, preventing the kind of top-down regulation that they feel (and are certainly justified in feeling) has contributed so much to their prosperity.
The personal benefits and professional problems with telecommuting were not ignored: 65 percent of those polled felt that telecommuting allowed them to be more productive because they have more control over their work life. But 62 percent found it “socially isolating” and worried that lack of face time at the office would lessen their chances of promotion.
As a telecommuter myself, I am concerned more with the lack of infrastructure in place to deal with significant numbers of critical telecommuting employees. Just try to record a Skype video conversation between a three or four people, or give a presentation to 100 off-site employees and 200 on-site ones. There are solutions, of course, but many are expensive and industrial-size, requiring special equipment and software from Cisco or another enterprise enabler. Companies like Boeing may have settled the global collaboration problem, but what about a 12-person operation spread across Europe and Canada that makes camera accessories?
Just as services have enabled one relatively tech-naive person to become an online business (and continue to do so), new services over the next few years will have to focus on repairing the natural loss that occurs when your employees are never physically near each other. The numbers, as shown by the huge numbers in emerging markets, are huge and getting bigger, and the big money in established countries is still waiting for the right moment to jump in. Collaboration tools and startups have been big at Disrupt and other showcases, and for good reason. The next ten years of global productivity are going to be driven by them.