In the next three years, public and private sector IT departments expect remote working to increase in the U.S. by 65 and 33 percent (PDF), respectively. The ability to work from home is seen by many employees as a good thing, allowing them more freedom and fewer inconveniences. But the growth of remote working isn’t all roses, for either employees or employers.
Imagine you’re in charge of a company that pilots a remote working test program. You find, like many do, that letting your employees work from home leads to greater productivity and lowered support and facility costs, so you widen the pilot program and make a portion of your staff full-time work-from-home employees. Eventually, you realize that you’re getting such great results from your remote workforce that you haven’t had need to see staff in person for weeks or months at a time. In fact, you realize, your workforce could be based anywhere in the world and still be as, if not more, effective.
In much the same way that advances in robotics replaced factory floor workers with automatons capable of doing the work of many with fewer errors and no need for breaks, advances in information technological have made it possible for workers in countries with lax labor regulations to do the work of multiple domestic employees for much cheaper. Offshoring is on the rise, and it’s affecting skilled positions now (PDF) nearly as much as it is unskilled labor.
Luckily, while remote working is part of the reason offshoring has become such a trend, it can also help workers based in the U.S. remain competitive. But it must be used in combination with the two key advantages available to the worker of the developed nation: the luxury of time and the freedom to fail.
In a recent article about the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. and around the world, Chrystia Freeland relays the sentiments of one CFO regarding the cost discrepancy between domestic and offshore labor: if your worker is asking 10 times the reward for doing a job, you expect 10 times the delivery. It may seem flippant, but it’s also a harsh reality of the new global economy, and one that denial or justification (like that expressed by many of the commenters of Freeland’s story) won’t make go away.
The only valid answer to such an expectation, at least as far as the balance sheet goes, is to meet it. And remote working can make that possible. Productivity boosts from at-home workers are a demonstrated reality. Part of the reason behind that is that remote workers tend to spend more time working, and less time not. Work can happen at times that would otherwise be lost. And if you happen to have a good idea after hours while watching television, there’s nothing stopping you from taking a few steps to the home office and working that idea out. Work/life balance may suffer, but even having such a balance to enjoy at all is a luxury.
It’s that luxury that allows us the second advantage I mentioned above, the freedom to fail. If you’re working 12 hours a day because otherwise you might literally starve, there’s little option but to stick to a prescribed formula for success. Experimentation isn’t fostered in that kind of situation, and the consequences of risk-taking could be catastrophic.
A remote worker in a developed nation is in a prime position to constantly innovate. Failure has fewer and far less dire consequences, and because of the luxury of time we enjoy, we can make up for botched attempts at doing something new much more easily.
In many ways, remote working leads naturally to an internationalized workforce, but it isn’t a death sentence for domestic employees. While companies generally look at higher cost as a bad thing, they also prioritize wise investment and aren’t afraid to spend in search of a return. By turning the advantages that higher wages afford us back into added value for employers, we can make sure we continue to stand out in a global workforce.
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