What will be the technology turning point for remote work?

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This week I flew to Michigan to kick-off a new project. We had eleven executives from seven different locations across North America. Only one lived and worked in Michigan.

During a fun dinner conversation about how technologies like Yammer and IM are changing business interactions, we got on to the pros and cons of TelePresence, the high end video conferencing solution this company uses. (If you haven’t used it before, I’ll share from personal experience that you can count the hairs on someone’s head. It is far beyond traditional video). Someone joked about how hard it is during a TelePresence call to multitask or even lean over and whisper to a coworker without being heard and seen. And that is exactly what made another person ask the group how long it will be until we all have setups in our home offices to allow us to connect in so “virtually-real”. The gap between remote and in person meetings is closing to the point that it will soon be very hard to justify the travel and/or office maintenance costs. Yes, George Clooney, in his recent movie “Up in the Air”, did make an adequate case that some things (i.e. firing people) should be done in person, but many other everyday interactions can and should be moved to video conference once the technology is there.

I, for one, dream about the day I can work from a home office from the mountains, connecting to my clients via a medium stronger than a phone. I like a mix; meeting people in person is great the first time and every once in a while or for longer meetings, but so much work can be done, more efficiently, remotely.

And it is happening…

Old-school consultants find it extremely surprising when we hypothesize that Thought Ensemble may never have a physical office. And yet I feel closer to my colleagues than ever before, with constant connection via IM, presence to show me where they are and video conferencing on our internal meetings. We still see each other once or twice a month and at various locations for internal meetings, but the majority of our time we work remotely.

My financial planner conducts his quarterly review meetings with me using video/ web conferencing. At first I thought it was a bit strange for him to suggest this type of meeting when I only live a few minutes from his office, but now I absolutely love just connecting in with him in the midst of my day, from home. I’m meeting with him more often and feel more connected to him than I did my previous financial planner. There’s something about seeing him on the screen while he projects the report online that feels much more connected than a phone call.

It is even happening in larger companies, although our clients seem to still congregate in various offices rather than work remotely from home offices. Some of our clients are dispersed across the country and globe and stay very connected with each other via video, phone and instant messaging. In some ways, those in remote offices may have more effective communication. Recently, I’ve noticed that companies that primarily operate out of one location are less rigorous about setting and running effective meetings because they take for granted their ability to snag a coworker’s time. Yes, there is something nice about walking down the hall, but being dispersed requires people to use each other’s time more thoughtfully. It seems the more dispersed the team members are, the more they respect each other’s time, showing up to meetings as planned, setting agendas, and sticking to the time alloted.

That all said, there’s still a huge cultural shift to having people work remotely. Many technologies along the way have supported that shift –beginning with the phone, onto email, instant messaging, presence and social networking. (Good) video may be the turning point. Once quality video is pervasive, I believe the majority of knowledge work can be done remotely…

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