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The myth of the telecommuter

Some years ago (in 1999, I think), I was invited to address the Royal Society in New Zealand on “The future of work”. I assumed that I’d been invited because of my profile as a tech company CEO, and that I was expected to espouse the vision of technology transforming work and the workplace. My co-presenter was noted New Zealand academic, Dr Norman Kingsbury. Norman’s advice to me was to “surprise them”. Unfortunately, I’ve lost my speech notes, but the gist of my presentation was something like this:
  • The exploding ability to store, find, order, and connect information of all types will radically increase our use of knowledge and enable more innovation and new types of business;
  • Technologies will merge, so that a successor to both the mobile phone and PC will become your primary means of accessing that vast pool of information and services (albeit linked to physically restrained appliances such as large displays, printers and high capacity communication links);
  • The internet and the services available on it will eventually become so cost effective that few will bother with in-house facilities, other than access to those physical devices I mentioned.
This was standard fare, with everyone nodding as I reiterated points others had made on many occasions. However, my main theme was why people come together into teams, workplaces and cities to work. Fundamentally, it is to interact with each other and to gain access to services and goods. It is the bringing together of people in informal and formal regular physical contact that has enabled society to develop to where it is today. Workplaces, cities, and organisations such as companies are the means of doing that.

This led me into an attack on a myth popular at the time that cities were inefficient because of traffic, pollution, commuting time, etc.. Telecommuting and teleconferencing from smaller centres were seen as the likely future for clerical and knowledge-based workers. It was a naive idea even then. Yes, there are and will be some who can work truly location-independently, but the vast majority will still be most effective in coming together in one place. I won’t reiterate the rest of the speech, which covered access to knowledge, goods, services and communities, but my conclusion was that work in the future will not be much different from work in the past. Tools would change; speed, reach, mobility and connectedness would all increase, giving companies and workers greater freedom of where/when/how to work; but fundamentally, most people would still come together in cities, organisations and workplaces.

This clearly wasn’t what the audience expected to hear, and some dismissed me as a crypto-Luddite. However, in the 10+ years since, I’ve heard nothing to persuade me that I was wrong. On the contrary, I’m more convinced than ever:
  • Companies are increasingly consolidating sites, campuses and offices into larger footplate buildings in fewer locations;
  • Most phone calls, text messages and emails are between people within walking distance of each other. The second biggest category are between people within a short drive of each other (for social and business purposes).
  • Rents and property prices in cities are still much higher than anywhere else (and have been less affected by the current property crunches in various countries). Most organisations and households clearly still choose to be located in cities.
  • Contrary to popular belief, cities generate less carbon and other pollutants, and use less energy per capita than towns, villages and rural households. It’s only because cities concentrate such use that they seem worse.
We may become more mobile and connected, but workplaces and cities will still be our primary places to do work.

First published 29 May 2008