Virtual working, remote working or telecommuting has been discussed for at least 10-15 years already. And during that time the discussion has broken into different stages. Some organisations and people are still stuck in the same phase as 15 years ago, wondering whether virtual working could, well, work. In that conversation the doubts still linger about whether people would just read newspapers or tend to their garden all day if they are let out of supervisory sight. In the meanwhile, others have moved along, adopted virtual working as part of their reality, and the discussion is more on the different forms of virtual working, and the requirements it sets to management practices and communication technology.
I have used different forms of virtual working fo a while, and in the middle of the last decade for a few years I was part of a geographically dispersed organisation, and worked mainly virtually, business trips and specific face to face meetings aside. There were several upsides to the arrangement, the flexibility and the length of the commute from the bedroom to the study being the topmost. Practically the only downside was the lack of a social office environment, and even that didn’t mean total lack of social interaction. It is doable to create and maintain working relationships over the net, phone, chat and even the much despised e-mail. This should actually not be surprising, given how large a part of our social interaction outside work happens virtually these days. The same dynamic works for both working relationships and friendships; they can be maintained and even created virtually, but are made much stronger by the occasional face time.
In my organisation things were helped by the fact that pretty much everyone was virtual. Even those who spent their days in the office, used the same communication channels since all their team mates were located somewhere else. In situations were part of the team is co-located and part virtually, it can be much trickier to keep the virtual workers from feeling somewhat disconnected.
Around that time I started seeing magazine articles about the trailblazers of virtual working, who where staying at home with their laptops for one day per fortnight, and posing in rocking chairs wearing their pajamas and slippers.
Virtual working does not mean the same thing for everyone. Being virtual full time is not the same as taking a virtual day every now and then. I think that here, like in many other things, flexibility is best, and being able to combine virtual working with working in the office can provide the benefits of both whilst keeping the downsides low.
As to the productivity of virtual working versus office work, I believe that individual differences are more significant than the way of working. A recent HBR blog did point out that remote workers are more engaged with their bosses and coworkers than the office bound kind, but that may to a large part be due to a conscious effort for staying engaged.
Remote working can take many forms, and it is not always clear what is remote working. Salespeople and consultants have worked from customer offices and hotels as long as anyway remembers. And many professionals who spend their day in the office open up their laptop for a couple of hours at home later in the evening. But at that point there is no one around to take pictures with rocking chairs and slippers.
The media attention anyway is now more focused on working in cafes and other public places, at least in Finland. Nowadays that is a real option, with a wide choice of establishments with free Wifi, and even city sponsered ones in parks and other outside locations. That has not been the case for too long. Six years ago, when I was moving house, it took the telecoms company six weeks to move the broadband form one address to the other. So no connection in the home office during that time, and even the office I could otherwise use was undergoing a renovation, so had to find connectivity somewhere else. As my colleagues in the US were constantly spending their days working at Starbucks, I figured I could do the same. Surely there would be an internet cafe in the second largest city in Finland. I googled, and there were two. One service station at the motorway entrance, and one hotel lobby. So I spent a few weeks working from the hotel bar, but somehow did not feel very trendy.