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Bridging the digital divide

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

It’s high time to re-imagine how and where we work

By Matthew Bauer

As originally in the May/June Sustainable Industries Issue, Bridging a Digital Divide

If you have been following the news as of late, it is likely that you have seen one or more articles on the virtues or the downside of telework, all taking cues from Yahoo!’s (Nasdaq:  YHOO) recent decision to recall its teleworkers back to the “factory.” The debate has covered the pros and cons extensively, so I will spare you the emotion here and focus on the past, present and future of work as we know it, and where it’s going, whether you like it or not. Just the facts ma’am!

First, I would like to thank Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer for sparking the debate, which was probably not her intention.  How we work has been a long overdue national discussion. As with most things (i.e. religion, politics, sports), there is no clear right or wrong answer in this debate; maybe all the articles and commentary should have lead off with a disclaimer as such. In Yahoo!’s case, it was not telework, but rather a decline in company culture and inability to measure how or what work was actually getting done, that sparked the announcement. Yahoo! is circling the wagons and starting over, which is what Mayer was brought there to do. Good on you.

Let’s kick off our installment in this worthwhile debate with a look back, way back: For most of recorded history, the nature of work has been a real slog for the masses. Transitions from hunting and gathering all day to feed ourselves (95% of our species’ history) to agriculture, servitude, feudal existence, the manual labor of it all – advances were at a snail’s pace. In a relatively small sliver of time, really just a few hundred years, the acceleration has been almost dizzying: the Industrial Age, globalization, computers, the Internet, and instantaneous global media coverage. Transitions that used to be measured in decades and centuries now take months and a few years

At the same time, the Industrial Age has been fading into the new realities of a service-based economy – an economy based on knowledge workers, and an economy where location is becoming less and less a factor. A funny thing happened on the way to the water cooler during the transition, though: most workers have kept on reporting to the “factory” for work. The nature of the work really has little or nothing to do with the place we actually perform that work. With all this technology in the ground and in the air, we have lawyers, accountants, consultants, nonprofit staff, government workers, lobbyists, tech support, software engineers, customer support, administrative workers, who predomnantly still drive, train and fly to the “factory” most days. Twenty years ago, this made sense. We didn’t have the public Internet, processes, automation and the playing field for knowledge workers to really thrive. Now?

Fast forward to 2013. What an amazing opportunity! For the first time in history, one can make a good living from most any home or office in America, most likely with a great deal of flexibility and greater lifestyle than ever before enjoyed in history. As foretold decades ago by Peter Drucker, the age of the knowledge worker is upon us. However, collectively we are doing very little to connect the dots and bring the untold benefits of remote work into the fold. Whether remote means five miles or 5,000 miles to a worker, the experiment is over. Examples such as IBM (NY SE: IBM), the U.S. Trade and Patent Office, U.S. Army, and our own little beauty, BetterWorld Telecom, all rely on telework and remote work as a backbone of their operations – seeking and utilizing the best talent available, regardless of location. The opportunity of this generation lies in the social and environmental benefits, cost savings and leadership our country can provide the world by creating a national movement around a #workshift.

Location-based work is a dinosaur awaiting extinction. The two largest contributors to America’s carbon emissions are buildings and transportation.  Commuting to office buildings makes up most of that number. In sum, the leading contributor to carbon and environmental emissions in the United States is squarely rooted in how we work. Roughly 5% of the U.S. workforce telecommutes most days. If that number was 50% of those able to telecommute, we could cut our carbon emissions by 50%, while saving 453 million barrels of oil and slashing the 2.1 billion hours we waste in traffic jams every year (Source: “From Workplace to Anyplace,” World Wildlife Fund). It would be the equivalent of taking 15 million cars off the road. Add in health costs, traffic deaths and injuries and lost productivity and it doesn’t take a genius to realize our current version of work is in need of a reboot. As Kirkpatrick Sale wrote in “Human Scale” more than 33 years ago,“…the madness of American transportation leads to only one conclusion: no solution of the transportation puzzle is possible until work and home are put back together.”

On the social side of the equation the benefits pile up even higher. Companies that have effectively embraced telework tend to be more open and democratic by nature, which is a starting point for greater productivity and the evolution towards a more responsible, sustainable business framework. It’s also a reflection of company values in being results-oriented, regardless of when and how employees work, versus being hyper-controlling with a clock-watching mentality. It’s about employee trust and empowerment, expanding opportunities for those with geographic and physical challenges.  We are headed in a new direction whether managers of traditional work models like it or not. Telework is starting to scale up significantly. It’s seen 15% growth since 1990 and is expected to impact 50% of the workforce by 2020 (Source: “Remote Work,” Cornell University, 2011). In addition, 36% of employers planned to hire contract workers in 2012, up from 28% in 2009 (Source: CareerBuilder.com). More than 4 million jobs are available today while 12 million people are unemployed (Source: “With Positions to Fill, Employers Wait for Perfection,” New York Times, March 6, 2013). And don’t forget those Millennials, who, on the whole, are seeking alternative work environments and will break the mold that has been dominant for decades.

Work is consistently dividing into smaller pieces, placing increased reliance on knowledge workers to fill in the gaps as contractors rather than full-time employees. “In the future, it will make more sense to work on a project-by-project basis, similar to how crews work on movies…and then, upon completion of the project, go their separate ways,” write Mayard Webb in “Rebooting Work.” Contract work tends to be done remotely. Contract work also doesn’t count in unemployment numbers published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. With unemployment stagnant and contract work rising, we should be rethinking how we measure what constitutes a job.

However, there remains a “digital divide” – a giant chasm where so much opportunity is missed by those lacking access to state-of-the-art telework technologies. The greatest opportunity we have today to lower unemployment and build permanent social change is to bridge this gap and create a knowledge-based work force. Many countries around the world have pursued this strategy, lifting millions of people out of poverty and providing longterm sustainable careers. With ongoing “broadband-to-work” training programs, they are focused on readying their citizens for the New Economy. It’s a model we must adapt to ensure the sustainability and growth of the U.S. economy.

At the core of the new knowledge-worker paradigm is the removal of location from the equation. From the supply side, this opens the door to all of those rapped in “job deserts” – from the single mother in downtown Detroit and the struggling family in rural Oklahoma to the nearly 20 million U.S. citizens with physical disabilities that make it difficult to get to and from the factory.

The big idea here is related to how Western society and much of the world has organized its work, schooling, government and other institutions in paternal, top-down fashion, packed with hierarchy and an implicit value on location. Cracks have begun to appear around how these relationships are transacted, and with new and emerging technologies, anchoring to a specific location makes less and less sense. A teacher standing in front of a classroom, a CEO pacing in a boardroom, the congresswoman speaking to the House chamber – with 6.2 billion cell phones now in service and hundreds of millions with Internet access, opportunity is blossoming for a truly connected “biosphere consciousness” as Jeremy Rifkin describes it. All this happened in the last 20 years. Looking at the next 20 more years, it’s going to get real interesting. Maybe this connectedness also offers a return to a more direct and organic way of growing, connecting and existing on this planet.

The current mode of work we find ourselves rooted in is just not tenable for the long term. It’s too expensive and unproductive. It’s our greatest source of pollution. It excludes so many potentially productive people who are relegated to local or regional options beneath their capabilities. We have proven, effective models and the technology to break the mold for good. Let’s enable this inevitable transition take hold sooner than later, and let’s reinvent America by re-imagining how and where we work. With heavy economic challenges facing the majority of Americans, there’s no reason to wait.

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