The concept of a virtual office has been around for many years. The benefits to the affected employee are obvious – more time with family, less wasted time on the roads, lower fuel costs, a comfortable work environment, etc. The benefits to the employer are less tangible, but include a reduced need for office space, a lower risk of employee road-traffic injuries, happier employees etc.
Let’s consider the potential impact.
- Less traffic. OK, not everyone is a candidate for working remotely, but I would contend that in banks and insurance companies alone there are tens of thousands of people who have no real need to be physically present in the office. Imagine substantially reducing the number of cars, taxis and buses on the roads. What a pleasure for those who still need to travel in!
- Less fuel used. Remove all these cars from the daily commute into the major cities and business centres and there will be a corresponding drop in fuel usage. If you take just 10,000 people off the roads, each using for argument’s sake 20 litres of fuel per week, that equates to 200,000 litres of fuel saved per week, or roughly 10 million litres of fuel per year.
- A dramatic reduction in pollution: Guess what – take all those cars off the roads and the levels of pollution will drop dramatically, improving residents’ health and helping the government to meet its pollution reduction targets.
- Less office space required. Businesses will be able to drastically cut back on building ownership, rentals, furnishings and maintenance. It is difficult to put a value on this but given that large corporates spend millions on buildings every year, the savings are bound to be substantial.
- Low cost accommodation: This is the potentially huge benefit to society. The office space that is freed up could fairly easily be converted into suitable accommodation, since the plumbing, sewerage, electricity and lighting are already in place. The floor space is easily and infinitely reconfigurable due to the use of dry walling to divide up the vast open-plan floor space. Just think of the impact that this could have on the availability of decent accommodation at affordable prices, without the interminable wait for low-cost housing to be built at enormous cost.
Why hasn’t this approach been taken if it seems so obvious? The reality is that all of this is possible, but it requires a shift in the mindset of the senior and middle management levels of large corporations. The necessary remote worker technology is freely available in the form of email, telephones and video conferencing.
A minimal amount of office space will still be required and configured for face-to-face meetings. The problem lies with the belief that employees are only productive when they are seated at their desks in the great grey concrete monoliths, the architectural dinosaurs of the past that we call offices. Once we get past that hurdle, anything is possible!