What Will Telework Change and What Kind of Future Will it Bring?
Today and Tomorrow in the Leading Telework Country
(Presented at Fourth International Telework Workshop Tokyo, Japan - September 3, 1999)
Gil E. Gordon
Gil Gordon Associates
Monmouth Junction, New Jersey USA
Copyright (C) 1999, Gil Gordon Associates. All Rights Reserved
For more information, visit www.gilgordon.com.
It is a great honor for me to be here with you today. As some of you may know, this is my third visit to Tokyo to talk about telework. Each time that I come here, I think how silly it is for me to fly on an airplane for almost fourteen hours so I can talk about "working at a distance."
However, if I did not make that airplane trip, I would have to do this presentation by sitting in a videoconferencing room near my home. It is much more enjoyable to come here in person - you have better beer, nicer people, and prettier flowers everywhere.
Much of our discussion about telework is about technology. As you know, we have made very impressive improvements in the technology for telework - but I hope there will never be a kind of technology that replaces our ability to drink a cold beer, relax with friends, or smell a fragrant flower.
Perhaps those are the only things that we cannot do today, or very soon in the future, with the technology we have. We may not be able to drink beer at a distance, but we can certainly do almost any kind of work at a distance. My presentation today will be about some of these technologies, but more important, about what they mean for how we work, where we live, and how we will move into the next century.
Most of my comments will be about telework in general around the world, but I will also discuss some of the specific situations in the US. Many people believe that the US is the "leading telework country," and in many ways it is. However, in the US we do not have all the answers, we have certainly made our mistakes, and therefore we should be viewed only as ONE model, but not THE ONLY model for the future.
B. THREE MISTAKES WE HAVE MADE IN TELEWORK
It is certainly important to look ahead at the future of telework. Before we do, I think it is just as important to look back at the recent history of telework. A famous US historian once said that if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are condemned to repeat them. There is absolutely no need for us to make the same mistakes again with telework - once was enough.
We have had much success with telework in the US and around the world. But
we have also had some problems. Here are the three most serious mistakes
we have made, in my opinion:
1. Too Much Emphasis on the Role of Technology:
Many people think that telework is relatively new - that it began sometime around the early 1990's, and that it is a product of the explosive growth of personal computers. This is exactly the same as a teenager thinking that he or she was the first to rebel against their parents - that nobody before them had the same experiences.
Telework in various forms can be traced back to the late 1960's. I have heard stories of companies that had employees working at home doing a job that has been mostly forgotten by today's workforce. They were using IBM keypunch machines to produce those old-fashioned data-entry cards that were used before magnetic tape or diskettes.
In fact, we could even say that a salesman who traveled around the city to visit customers was a teleworker - he did not spend much time in his own office, and he did not have direct supervision by his manager. And we have certainly had salesman doing this work for many years - at least 100 years, in fact.
The reason why many people think that telework is much newer is because they think telework did not, and could not, happen without the personal computer as we know it today. Early personal computers were invented in the middle 1970's, but it was not until the first IBM PC was produced in 1981 that they started to become popular in business. Laptop computers as we know them today were introduced in the middle to late 1980's, and since then we have seen continuing improvements in the features, size, and convenience of laptops.
It is easy to understand, therefore, why people think telework did not happen until these laptops became widely available, and until modem access from home was possible at speeds of 9600 bits per second or faster. This is absolutely incorrect, in my opinion.
The fundamental idea behind telework is to decentralize the office - that is, to move away from the idea that we must bring all the workers to one single location so they can all work together at the same time. That was the way we did it in the agricultural economy, and in the industrial economy. We had no choice because we had to move the workers to the soil of the farm, and to the machines of the factory. However, as we move more into an information-based economy, we no longer need to rely exclusively on this kind of centralized office.
It is very easy to become fascinated with all the excellent and exciting new technologies we have today, and to think about how easy telework can be with hand-held computers, cell phones, ISDN lines, and more. But if we let ourselves think about telework only in terms of technology, we miss the most important point: it is often less expensive, more efficient, and better for both employees and customers if we can decentralize the office.
This does not mean we are going to have everyone working at home or in telework centers, and it does not mean we will make all our office buildings empty. As I will say later in this speech, the key factor in good telework is to use it selectively and appropriately to decentralize the office. The technology is definitely important - without it, we simply could not have as many mobile workers as we do today. But I can tell you that the companies, and the countries, that defined telework in terms of technology alone do not have long-term success. The technology is the tool that helps telework, but it is not the main reason why we have telework today.
2. Not Enough Emphasis on the Role of Corporate Culture:
The second mistake we made is that we did not pay attention to the effects of telework on the entire organization.
The best way to explain this is to think about a car. Imagine that you decided to remove the engine that came with the car, and replace it with a much more powerful engine because you wanted to drive faster. The new engine affects all the other parts of the car: you would need to change the steering and the brakes because of the added weight of the engine, you would have to install a new battery because it would take more electricity to start the engine, and you might even have to adjust the headlights because the heavier new engine would make the front of the car lower and the headlights would now be shining in the wrong place, and so on.
The same thing happens when we install telework in an organization. Any organization - whether it has ten employees or ten thousand employees - is a system with many connected parts, just like the car. Also, an organization has what we call a "culture" - that is, the set of habits and patterns of how people work together and how things get done. Installing a faster engine in the car might make it drive faster, but it might also be harder to steer and harder to stop. Installing telework might make the organization "drive faster" but it also affects the flow of work from department to department, the way people communicate with each other, and much more.
The car with the faster engine might drive faster, but in a short time perhaps the tires will wear out, the springs and shock absorbers will become weaker, the brakes will become unsafe, and other unanticipated changes will occur. The only way to prevent these problems is to have a team of experts work together to analyze the likely effects of the new engine. The engineer might know about the engine's power, but we need a brake specialist to tell us about how the brakes will be affected, a tire specialist to tell us what kind of new tires we need, and so on.
Successful telework requires the same kind of team effort. In many organizations, telework has been planned and implemented by only the Information Technology (IT) staff, or by only the Facilities and Real Estate staff, or by only the Human Resources staff. Each of these, and others, is important - but no one of them can manage telework alone.
In many cases we have failed to recognize this kind of integrated, connected aspect of telework, and we have also failed to recognize that the very culture of an organization changes when we start to change some of its parts. The very best telework programs I have seen are the ones that involve a lot of planning to consider these cultural changes, and also anticipate what else in the organization must change for telework to succeed in the long term.
3. Tendency to Take Tiny Steps Instead of Big Leaps Forward:
The third mistake in telework implementation is the tendency to create programs that are too small to be useful. I said this when I was here before and it is still true today: a very small pilot program with five or ten teleworkers is not very valuable. It is better than doing nothing, but five people in an organization of five thousand, or more, is an insignificant number. Whether those five teleworkers succeed OR fail, it is almost impossible to make any generalizations from the experience.
In my opinion, the only justification for a very small trial is when there is a question about the suitability of technology to support telework. In that case it is certainly advisable to start with only a few people so you can find the correct technical solution, instead of spending a lot of money on technology that might not be sufficient. However, even in these cases I believe we should plan for very rapid expansion once the technical questions have been answered.
I see no reason why organizations cannot begin with a program with at least 25 teleworkers, and 50 is even better. A smaller number does not provide a good test, and a smaller number sends a signal to the organization that "we are really not that serious about telework."
It was probably appropriate to have a pilot program with five or ten teleworkers in 1985, or even in 1990. Any programs that began with a small number like that anytime after 1990 had a very hard time becoming successful. It takes almost as much effort to do the planning for a program of five people as it does for 25 people. We have been much too tentative and much too cautious in our trial programs, in my opinion.
C. MY ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT LIKELY TELEWORK GROWTH
Each of us has some assumptions, or things we believe to be true, about telework. These assumptions affect our predictions about telework, just as our assumptions about any subject affect what we think will happen.
Let me tell you my assumptions about telework growth, because it is
important for you to understand what affects my viewpoint:
1. Telework Will Never Be Everywhere:
In the early days of telework, we knew that some employers would adopt it earlier than other employers. This is what happens with any innovation. Many people believed that it would just be a matter of time before every employer started using telework, in the same way that all employers offer paid vacation time, insurance, and other benefits that apply to everyone.
The separation between employers that understand and use telework, and the employers that still fight against it, is becoming bigger. There are many reasons why some employers may never use telework except for just a few people. The main reason is the continued "mental block" that executives and managers have about telework.
I turned 50 years old earlier this year, so now I suppose I am qualified to make statements with great authority and wisdom. One of these statements is that dumb managers and dumb organizations very rarely get smarter unless they are under tremendous pressure to change, and cannot see any other alternative. Our lives are too short for us to worry about improving the situation of dumb employers. They will eventually begin to slow down and eventually fade away into the history books.
Meanwhile, the smart managers and smart employers will do much better. They will struggle with the need to make change - but in the end they WILL make the change they need to survive, including the use of telework. Therefore, I suggest that we should put our efforts into helping the smart employers get smarter and become more successful. Otherwise, we will become old and gray and tired from trying to help people and organizations that refuse to change.
2. We Have Too Much Technology, Not Too Little:
The technology for telework is very good and continues to get better. This does not mean it is perfect, or that it is always the right price. But the best news is that we have plenty of technology - hardware, software, and telecommunications - to allow telework to be effective.
I have seen many of my US clients having a difficult time trying to select from among this big list of technology. There are too many laptops, too many kinds of remote-access solutions, and too many kinds of applications software. What is needed is a way to create packages of tested solutions for various kinds of telework situations.
Let me explain why this is important. Imagine that you are getting ready to go on a vacation or a business trip, and you start to gather everything you want to take. You go into the bathroom and get your toothbrush, your toothpaste, your razor or your cosmetics, and all the other items you need. If you are like me, you almost always forget at least one thing that you need - and you find out about this at 11 o'clock at night when all the stores are closed.
What if you could go into a store and buy a pre-packaged kit that contained exactly enough of each item for the number of days of your trip? For example, you could get a three-day kit for a man, or a five-day kit for a woman, and so on. You would probably be willing to pay a small amount extra for the convenience of having everything together.
This is what we need for telework. The problem is not with the type or amount of technology - the problem is that we rarely have it collected in the right package.
3. Workers Will Stop Thinking About Telework and Will Start Expecting It:
In the early stage of telework in a company, a few people think to themselves, "Wouldn't it be nice if I could telework!" Later, a few more people will ask their managers, "Can I telework two days a week?" Later, a few more people will ask their managers, "Would you prefer that I telework on Tuesday or Thursday this week?" And finally, people applying for jobs will routinely ask during the interview, "You DO allow your employees to telework, don't you?"
I have described a progression from people thinking about it, to cautiously asking about it, to assuming it is available, to expecting it as a condition of employment. We have not reached that end point yet, but I don't think it is far away. Many smart employers will implement telework because it makes good business sense to do so - but many more will implement telework because their current and future employees will simply assume that it is available.
D. SIX EFFECTS OF CONTINUED GROWTH IN TELEWORK
I have been involved in the telework field since 1982, and at least two times a month I am asked to make estimates about the future growth of telework. So, that is 24 times a year for 17 years, or a total of at least 408 estimates I have made about the future number of teleworkers. If I have been lucky, I think that perhaps 10 of those estimates were correct - but I don't know which ones they were.
My consulting business does not include any statistical market research, so when I make these estimates I rely on the research done by people who are in that business. Every time I see their numbers I get more confused. One thing is clear, however: the number of teleworkers has continued to increase by approximately 10% to 15% each year in the US and in many other countries. This means that today in the US we have approximately ten million teleworkers - and this number is much more conservative than some other estimates you might hear.
There are other people at this conference who can probably give you more
accurate estimates. I would rather discuss the implications of this
growth, because I am convinced that the growth WILL continue. Here is
what that means for all of us:
1. Nobody Can Stop It:
Telework is not a temporary fad. We will never return to the time when almost everybody works in the office all the time. We have opened the door to the possibilities of telework, we have clearly shown its benefits, and it would be foolish to try to eliminate it. As I have said many times before, this does not mean that everyone will be a teleworker. It means instead that telework will become normal, expected, and just as routine as seeing a computer in an office or a teenager wearing headphones. We now have enough momentum behind telework that we will never go back to doing all the office work in the office.
2. The World Will Adapt to Telework - Not the Reverse:
When women started to be employed in professional-level jobs in the US in large numbers, the women had to do all the changing and adjusting to a man's world. They wore clothes that looked like a man's business suit, they had to use all the bad language the men did, and they had to tolerate all the stupid business practices and habits the men had tolerated for years. Today, things are different: women can dress like women, not like men. Men who use a lot of bad language around women can be fired, and their employers can receive a lawsuit. And, fortunately, women have been responsible for creating many changes in business practices that were long overdue.
The same things happened with teleworkers. In the beginning, and even today, teleworkers had to be very careful about their work schedule, to be sure they were able to be in the office to attend meetings. Today, most of those meetings are done by audio or video conference calls. In the beginning, teleworkers had to figure out how to carry home a heavy desktop PC. Today, most of them can easily carry a laptop anywhere they go. In the beginning, teleworkers had to struggle with modem connections that were too slow to be of much value. Today, most teleworkers can easily get some kind of broadband, high-speed connection to the home.
These trends will continue - including some of the hidden problems. Even though women are much more accepted today in the business world in the US and elsewhere, there are still many cases where the women feel treated unfairly. And even though telework is more widely accepted today, there are still many cases where teleworkers must listen to the jokes from their co-workers about how the teleworkers stay home and watch television and drink beer. Slowly but surely, all of this will change.
3. The Telecommunications Industry Will Go Crazy:
I just told you that most teleworkers in the US can get some kind of broadband connection to their homes. This is true, but it is the result of more than ten years of slow progress. In the US as in Japan and most other countries, the telephone network was designed for business calls to occur in offices, and for personal calls to occur in homes. It has been virtually impossible for the carriers to change their networks quickly enough to satisfy the demand for high-speed access. In the US, the telecommunications carriers are perceived as following, not leading, the telework trend. This is starting to change as they expand their digital networks, and as competitive carriers become more powerful. Japan is ahead of the US in some ways because of your plans for developing a nationwide digital network - although the cost of using that network here will probably be higher than in the US.
To make things worse, many teleworkers live - or would like to live - in suburban or rural areas where it is even harder to get high-speed service. The carriers cannot afford to invest in digital networks in areas where the population density is low. That is why cable telephony, satellite telephone, and various forms of wireless transmission are becoming so popular.
Teleworkers want bandwidth like a child wants candy: no matter how much they have, they always want more. It will be at least five years in the US before most teleworkers will be able to have the high-speed access they want, where they want it. We may never see the time when every teleworker has all the access they want.
4. Managers Will Adapt or Become Useless:
I told you before that I just turned 50 years old. This means that I am no longer a young person with new ideas - I am now in the category of the old-fashioned people. Managers my age and older continue to have a difficult time adjusting to telework - although I have seen many managers in their 50's and 60's doing very well with teleworkers.
Managers at age 50 and older, as well as many in their 40's, have been trained and expected to be very close supervisors - to watch what their people are doing almost every minute. This does not mean they can't change, or don't want to change. It means that it will be a challenge for them to change because they have had at least 20 years of experience managing the other way.
The bad news is that the pressure to change the style of supervision for telework will be a hard adjustment for many managers. The good news is that they will become better managers if they do. The experience of managing at a distance makes them better managers of people in the office as well. In other words, the manager who can learn how to manage teleworkers will automatically become a better managers of employees who don't telework.
It will be a difficult decision for middle-aged managers, but it is the same kind of decision those managers have to make about using a PC. If they learn, they will succeed; if they don't want to learn or cannot learn, they will no longer be valuable managers.
5. Fewer Workers - More Business Owners:
Japan is just like the rest of the world: every developed country is in the middle of explosive growth in small businesses and entrepreneurs. When I was preparing to graduate from university in 1972, we business school students all fought with each other to obtain job interviews with the very large companies that came to recruit us. The only people who went into their own start-up businesses were the ones not good enough to get a big corporate job. Today, the situation is exactly the opposite: many large US companies are having great difficulty attracting college graduates - they all want to work in a small start-up company, and preferably one with "dot com" in its name.
Telework most often refers to corporate employees working at home or elsewhere away from the office - but that is only one form of telework. The same technology and the same worker values that create interest in corporate telework are creating interest in the "SOHO" (Small Office Home Office) kind of work. Give a smart person a cell phone, a laptop, and a fax machine, and he or she is in business immediately. The growth in these SOHO kinds of work will grow as fast, if not faster, than corporate telework.
6. Very Little Will Change in Transportation Patterns:
I wish I could be more positive about this last prediction, but the facts force me to tell you the truth. As you know, one of the benefits of telework that has always been discussed is the ability to reduce the daily commuting problems and the air pollution that come with them. We know that teleworkers drive their cars less - that is for certain. But we also know that the overall pattern of traffic congestion is so bad in almost every city, that it would take an enormous amount of telework to make a difference.
For the last fifty years, the US, most of Europe, and to a certain extent Japan, have built societies that encourage and reward suburban living. The automobile companies have been very successful in convincing us that we cannot live without having our own car, or cars. One of the newest and most controversial political topics in the US today is "suburban sprawl" and the problems of almost unlimited growth and development.
I am trying to say that the problems that create much of our traffic and pollution go far beyond the daily commuting to work. I still believe that telework definitely can help remove some cars from the road and some pollution from air, but I am not convinced that doing so will have much of an effect overall.
If this is the bad news, I believe there are two other transportation-related effects of telework that could be very good news. The first is about employment for people with disabilities - most of whom are able to do very good work but simply cannot get to the workplace every day. It is a shame to see how few disabled people have actually been employed as teleworkers, but I am hopeful this will change. Part of our new thinking about mobility and transportation must be that we separate mobility from ability - they are not the same. We waste a lot of talent when we fail to find creative ways to employ people with disabilities. Telework is certainly one of those methods.
Second, there has been much talk over the years about the role of telework in regional development, and the revitalization of communities or large areas where unemployment is high. Japan is an excellent example - but not the only example - of a country where too many people are squeezed into too little space. The main reason so many people live in the Tokyo-Osaka-Yokohama region is because of the concentration of jobs here.
As we approach the next century, I think it is finally time that we realize we can bring work and employment to people in other areas, instead of forcing them to move to where the jobs are traditionally located. Many of our problems with transportation and pollution are related to this pattern of squeezing too many people into small areas. Japan, and other countries, should be able to use technology to bring jobs, education, government services, entertainment and much more to areas that need a fresh start in this new century.
E. THE STRANGE FUTURE OF TELEWORK IN THE US
The US is a country where everyone knows what style of underwear our President wears, people living in cities buy huge sport-utility vehicles to drive in congested traffic, and McDonalds had to pay millions of dollars in a lawsuit because their coffee was too hot. In a country like this, you can imagine that the future of telework will be just as strange.
Many people around the world look at the US as the best example of telework in use. This is probably true in many ways, but not in all ways. I have seen excellent examples of various kinds of telework in almost every other country where telework is being used. The advantage we have in the US is the number of employers and number of teleworkers involved, and the amount of noise we make about our own accomplishments. I suggest that you always be skeptical about what you hear from the US about telework; many of the things we do are correct, but we also make our share of mistakes.
Let us examine what the next five years of telework in the US will look
like. I have only three predictions to make:
1. Say Goodbye to "Telework":
I hope that we will stop, or reduce very much, the use of the words telework or telecommuting. These are words that have been very useful to describe a change in the workplace, but I hope that the change will be successful enough so we do not need these special words any longer.
There is an excellent book called "The Underground Guide to Telecommuting," and it contains this quotation: "Work is something you do, not someplace you go." I have been using that quotation since the book was published in 1995. It is the best explanation of how we must change our thinking about work and the workplace. The words telework and telecommuting are words of transition - just like the words "horseless carriage" were used to describe the first automobiles. People didn't know what a "car" was, but they could easily understand the idea of a carriage pulled by a horse - but without the horse.
The most important indication of the wide acceptance of telework will be our ability to simply talk about work - no matter where it is done.
2. Office Work Will Become the Strange Activity:
In 1982 when I started my business, there were very few teleworkers. A person who teleworked was seen as something strange or unusual. Going to the office every day was normal and expected, so anyone who did "office work" away from the office was very different and strange. We may not accomplish this in the next five years, but I hope we can have a new definition of what is "strange" - the office worker who goes to the office five days a week will become the unusual one.
Once again, I must emphasize that everyone will not be a teleworker, and even those who do telework won't do it full-time. The change I am discussing here is that the concept of telework will become almost universally understood and accepted as normal in the workplace.
3. Personal and Family Life Will Improve:
It is no secret that we have many problems in our society in the US. When our children are taking guns to school, using drugs, and acting rudely, these are signs of some deep and serious problems. These problems have many causes, but one of them is simply the fact that parents are spending less time with their children. It is difficult to be a parent, and it almost impossible to be a good parent if you don't see your children except for a few minutes each day.
I wish I could tell you that more telework would solve all these problems. That would be wonderful, but it is unrealistic. However, I do believe that if telework allows parents to spend even a little more time with their children of all ages, it MUST be an improvement. I am not suggesting that we return to the 1950's when the father worked and the mother stayed home with the children all the time; that situation had its own problems. I am suggesting instead that if we make it easy for both fathers and mothers to be in the home a few more hours each day, their children will have better lives.
Similarly, we can look for telework to help improve the quality of life for the employees themselves, whether or not they are mothers and fathers. For many people, the worst part of the work day is getting TO work. It is costly, difficult, stressful, and in some cases unsafe. It always makes me very happy to hear teleworkers describe how much their lives have improved even if they commute two less days each week. Smart employers will realize the benefit of this change.
F. THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO TO MAKE TELEWORK BETTER
We all look for simple solutions to complex problems. You will be hearing
a lot at this conference about the complex issues involved in telework. I
am going to try to make your life simpler by making three simple
suggestions about things you can do to help the growth of telework,
starting next week:
1. Do It - Talk About It - Make It Work:
I am always amazed to hear about so many people who are trying to promote telework, but don't do it themselves. This is like a fat person trying to sell a dieting pill - nobody would believe them. Even if your employer doesn't have a formal telework program, find a way to telework one day a week for a month. That is only four days, but it is a good start.
If you are already teleworking or just getting started, find a way to talk about it with your friends, neighbors, and co-workers. You don't have to be like a noisy salesman or a person standing on a street corner in New York City selling imitation Rolex watches. But you should believe in what you do, and be willing to help others understand telework and get excited about it.
Last, if you know of co-workers who have tried telework and have had problems, you can be their consultant. Help them find a solution to the problems and you will create another telework success.
2. Look For Small Cracks - Not Big Doors:
Pretend that you are a small ant trying to get into a house to find some food. You don't need to find the front door; you can just crawl through a small crack and get inside. Many people make the mistake of looking only for the big door into a company to start or expand telework. It is often much more successful to find a little crack, or a small opportunity, to get started. Once you get through that little crack in the wall, you have a chance to make a change.
This does not mean you should give up on your efforts to start a big project. If you have the choice, it is always better to try for that big accomplishment all at once. But sometimes, the reality is that you can only find the small crack - and that is how you must begin.3. Remind People About Other "Bad Ideas":
Whenever somebody tells you that telework is a bad idea that will never work, remind them about the history of the telephone, the Xerox machine, and the PC. I like to remind people that:
- When the telephone was first offered to businesses, they said, "Why do we need it - we have messenger boys to carry messages."
- When the first photocopy machine was invented, the man who invented it was told, "Why do we need it - we have carbon paper to make copies."
- When the first personal computers were invented, and it was suggested that they would be used in business and at home, Ken Olsen (the founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation) said, "Why would anyone want to have their own computer?"
Telework is not a "bad idea." It is a different idea about working, and it is an idea whose time has arrived. You are all here today because you understand why telework works, and how important it can be. I encourage you to be the leaders in helping others see the benefits of telework, and show how it can help our businesses, our communities, our families, and our workers.
Thank you very much.