Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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The Ultimate Office?

As I sit here typing, at an outpost deep in the jungle, some 60 miles from the ancient Mayan ruins of Calakmul, I can't help but wonder how I ever lived without remote access technology. Margarita half consumed on the rattan table beside my similarly rough-hewn chair, I ponder just how far we have come technologically in such a short span and how dramatically our lives have been impacted socially as a result.

Scant years ago, this region in Mexico lacked for electricity, yet today my gracious host informs me that wireless Internet access is available from my cabin. This is indeed fortunate, as I had neglected to install an office suite on this laptop prior my departure and am composing this article using OpenOffice.org Writer, downloaded directly in advance of its creation. While the transfer speed wasn't exactly what I'd class as broadband, the relaxed pace of my environs precluded any sense of impatience and accounts for the current state of my Margarita.

Telephone and video conferencing, instant messaging, virtual private networking and of course, email have been the mainstays of my existence, working as I have over the past four years for a major Internet property based in Los Angeles – all from my home in Ottawa. Now that this former contract has come to a close, I have taken another in Montreal, which, despite being for a core role in senior management, I am still able to pursue from my kitchen table the majority of the time.

My personal situation is certainly not unique. The business world has definitely come to realize the benefits of unconventional work arrangements, if slowly. More enlightened entrepreneurs understand that while face-to-face interaction is essential at times, most communication may be effectively undertaken electronically. The side benefit of this this is that there is less opportunity for misinterpretation, given these transactions are recorded digitally and can be recalled for review at any time. Additionally, they recognize that delivering on projects according to their deadlines is more important than the location or exact time of day they have been created, further giving flexibility to their authors. This not only leads to employees feeling empowered, but has been shown to actually produce a higher calibre of work.

Contrary to popular opinion, remote workers also generally put in more hours than their office-bound counterparts and indeed are often more conscientious about finishing incomplete tasks – despite the official end of the work day. They are less stressed, have a reduced impact on the environment, have more time with their families and are generally happier than those who must daily trudge into the corporate environment.

Today, there really is little reason to be tied to geography in order that we might undertake many of the vocations we find ourselves occupied with in the knowledge economy; yet, few fully embrace the freedom our robust communications infrastructure affords. True, often it is those for whom we labour and their old-fashioned mindsets surrounding line-of-sight supervision which prevent a more thorough utilization of this resource; however, more frequently it is the workers themselves who are tied to traditional vocational paradigms.

Some would attribute this reluctance to outmoded habit or Luddite tendencies, and yet there are certainly many challenges and outright negatives that may arise from wholesale adoption of the remote employee model.

Morale is often the first casualty of widespread use of remote workers within an organisation. Without the daily informal interactions common in the office, a sense of belonging to the group is less well defined and both team cohesion and loyalty suffer. Communications can become more formal and attempts at humour may be misconstrued as the use of emoticons in business correspondence is not exactly considered professional in many circles.

One solution to this is to be found in communication technology itself: instant messaging. As a remote worker I have all but abandoned email for rapid correspondence and save it for documenting to-dos and so forth which have arisen from my team's utilisation of other forms of communication. Despite often being frowned upon as a huge time waster, even to the point of being banned from government departments and many corporations alike, instant messaging is among the most powerful productivity tools at our disposal. Unlike that email which you can ignore until later, IM demands immediate response and generally takes a much less formal tone – additionally enabling those incidental team building interactions to take place outside of the office walls. Then again, some people simply need a place to go every day to be with people they know and like... telecommuting is not for everyone.

For others, challenges of off-site employment include inability to separate work and home life. Many seem reluctant to step away from their PCs and leave to tomorrow what may be accomplished today, potentially leading to stress at home from neglect of family. Related to this, employers may come to believe that you are available at all times, given your home, for you, is the office. They are also less understanding of illness – figuring you are certainly stillable to work from home ("hey, stay in your pyjamas if you have to!") and even come to expect you to always be putting in overtime, just because you may be a conscientious and hard worker.

These obstacles are however, seldom difficult to surmount. With a little self-discipline and the  exhibition of some backbone when it comes to dealing with one's employer as relates to setting boundaries and expectations, you may come to realise all the benefits of both a fulfilling home and work life – without the 45 minute commute.

If you choose to extend the boundaries of your work-space even further, as I have over the past number of years, you may find your life taking many unexpected and rewarding turns... and should you find yourself typing away in a steamy jungle, secluded beach or bustling market, perhaps you'll find yourself agreeing with me:

The ultimate office? –  is none at all.

Originally published in HUB: The Computer Paper, February, 2008, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.


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