Opinion and Viewpoint and Workplace Issues

SLAUGHTER: We need a remote-work revolution

May 14, 2011

Viewpoint columnist Robby SlaughterIf you work in an office today, there’s a strong possibility that you would get a lot more done if you didn’t have to work in that office. It turns out that, although we think of glass towers, cubicles and filing cabinets as the places where we go to accomplish something, the office is a terrible place to get anything done.

The primary reason, as entrepreneur Jason Fried notes in a recent editorial for CNN.com, is that “the modern office has become an interruption factory.” Fried is painfully correct. Workplaces aren’t like school libraries, where silence is golden and quiet intellectual pursuit is the foundation of progress.

Instead, they are buzzing with conversation, ringing phones, shuffling papers, whirring copy machines, squeaky hinges and clunking footfalls. If you’re lucky enough to have your own walls, you can escape some of the chaos by closing your door. Most of us, however, work in cubes and must battle dozens of interruptions per hour.

Much of the reason we work in offices is inertia. The high cost of equipment and the utility of centralized files meant that it made sense for people to be physically located together. Yet today, this logic no longer applies. Computer technology can make any bit of company data available practically anywhere on the planet, at blazingly fast speeds on seemingly any network connection.

Furthermore, the per-employee hardware investment is now significantly less at work than at home. The desk chair, the desktop computer and the working space you have in your residence are likely far superior to the one at your company. It should be no surprise that spaces we create for ourselves are more comfortable than those specified on our behalf.

And it’s not as if we spend much time at the office collaborating in a meaningful way. According to a New York Times article, we spend an average of 5.6 hours per week in meetings and 71 percent of us report that these sessions are “unproductive.” Most of the work we do is solitary and most of the value we provide requires concentration. Why suffer from the interruptions and overhead expense of an office, if most of the time most of us don’t need it, anyway?

Some firms have embraced the true nature of work and shifted away from the obsession with employee co-location. Indianapolis-based Officescape, for example, helps clients transition to “distributed call centers” where employees can be virtual telephone-based customer representatives from anywhere with an Internet connection. Dozens of marketing, design and software development firms in central Indiana operate successfully without requiring their teams to put in a full week in a physical building. Yet despite the widespread availability and affordability of remote-work technology, these examples seem obscure and futuristic. We seem to use far more office space than we actually need.

The most fundamental reason we have not shifted the brunt of office work away from the office is because our business culture is based more on assessing the appearance of productivity than on actual results. People humming about in offices look busy, even though in reality they are constantly interrupting one another and struggling against the inconvenience of commuting and set hours.

Millions of Hoosiers should be working remotely. Firms that recognize the changing face of the office will be those most competitive in the years ahead.•

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Slaughter is a principal with Slaughter Development, an Indianapolis business-process and work-flow-consulting company. Information on his new book, “Failure: The Secret to Success,” is available at www.slaughterdevelopment.com.

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