Top Remote Work Trends to Watch for in 2011

1Executive Summary

Driven by improvements in technology — and particularly by an explosion in the availability in mobile technology and increased access to broadband — the world of work is changing rapidly. Earlier this month, GigaOM held its inaugural Net:Work conference at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, where we discussed the future of work in a highly mobile, post-broadband world. Here are the top trends and key issues we found to look out for in 2011.

Solving the Trust Issue

Trust is a big issue, particularly for workplaces that are just now transitioning to having some of their teams working remotely. Managers find it hard to trust workers they can’t see sitting at their desks day-in and day-out; remote workers find it hard to trust that employers are making the best decisions when they don’t have face-to-face contact with them on a regular basis. And while many tools, such as Peerdrum and RecueTime, currently exist that allow companies to monitor their remote employees’ activities, they solve the overall employer-employee trust issue. I think we’ll see more tools being developed and marketed specifically to improve this, tools that foster better communication between remote workers and their employers, rather than going down the monitoring route.

However, tools can only get us so far. I believe that in 2011, employers will start to realize there must be a more radical shift in the way that our companies are structured and managed in order to allow remote workers to operate to their fullest potential.

On stage at Net:Work, I asked LiveOps CEO and chairman Maynard Webb how we can improve trust between companies and their remote staff. Webb said that the employer-employee relationship is fundamentally broken, because companies are too paternalistic. Employees find it hard to trust an employer who judges them and acts as the gatekeeper to their career. Webb thinks that our organizations need to be more meritocratic; individuals will then feel more in control of their own destiny. Achieving this would require a significant shift in the way businesses work, and that’s likely to take much longer than one year to reach widespread adoption. Nevertheless, I think we’ll start to see forward-thinking organizations moving in this direction in 2011.

An Increasingly Mobile Workforce, Operating Entirely in the Cloud

Continuing the trend that we’ve seen over the last couple of years, the workforce will become ever more mobile. Technology enables workers to do their jobs anywhere: coffee shops, airports, while waiting for a bus. Smartphones and tablets enable people to do “real work” while on the go, even when they don’t have access to their laptops.

With Microsoft Office moving into the cloud with Office Web Apps and Skydrive, many more remote workers will soon be operating totally from the cloud. Google’s Cr-48 Chrome OS netbook, which is designed to showcase Chrome OS,  looks like it could bring significant productivity benefits. A slew of similar devices could follow in 2011.

Office Hours Becoming Less Relevant

One side-effect of a very mobile, always-connected workforce is that the concept of “office hours” becomes much less relevant. The typical “nine-to-five” schedule already holds little relevance for many remote workers, particularly if they have the freedom to structure their own time.

But while an always-connected, highly flexible workforce is appealing, it raises significant issues. How should workers be compensated in terms of pay and benefits if they’re not working traditional office hours? Should they be paid by the hour, or according to their output? How do businesses ensure that the pay for remote employees is fair and commensurate with those working in the office? How can businesses ensure their employees have appropriate work-life balance and don’t end up burning out? Finding solutions to these problems will become a priority over the coming year.

Increased Integration Between Collaboration and Communication Tools

Work shouldn’t be stuck in silos. While we have access to a fantastic array of tools to help us do our work wherever and whenever we please, it can sometimes be hard to move from one tool to another, or pass work between users. Recently, there have been moves to increase integration and interoperability between various web-based tools, such as the vendors involved in the Small Business Web initiative. I expect to see that trend continue in 2011.

What I’d really like to see, though, is greater integration between communication and collaborations tools: We could, for example, see Google Voice or Skype tightly integrated into project management tools like Basecamp, or document collaboration tools like Zoho, which would result in less switching between applications and greater efficiency.

Coworking “Crossing the Chasm”

Over the past few years we’ve seen an explosion in the number of coworking spaces. However, despite the number of these available worldwide (take a scan through the coworking wiki to get an appreciation of just how widespread the trend is), it’s not yet hit the mainstream quite yet, despite some attention from the traditional print and broadcast media. However, given the number of excellent and well established coworking facilities now available, and an increasing number of people working remotely, 2011 could be the year when the concept finally “crosses the chasm.” In other words, you could walk down the street in any city in the U.S., ask a a passerby where the nearest coworking center is, and not receive quizzical looks in return. That’s certainly what all of the panelists Net:Work’s GigaOM Pro workshop, Flexi Spaces and Coworking: What Works in the World of Work?, thought. Of course, given that panelists included PariSoma‘s Julian Nachtigal, New Work City‘s Tony Bacigalupo and NextSpace‘s Jeremy Neuner, you might expect them to think that.

As awareness of coworking and its benefits grows, we’re also likely see more companies exploring the option of paying for coworking space for their remote employees.

High-quality Video Everywhere

Video is becoming an increasingly large slice of Internet traffic. Of course, that’s mainly driven by consumer video, but its importance for remote work and collaboration can’t be understated. At one time, high-quality teleprecense systems (with high-definition video and very little lag) were only available in a small number of enterprises — those willing to spend the tens of thousands of dollars it cost to install the equipment. And even then, because of the cost, the facility would often only be available to a few high-ranking executives. However, recently the cost of such technology has dropped markedly, with new products available from the likes of HP, EspressoHD and Damaka, which should make videoconferencing available in a much wider range of businesses and to a much larger portion of the workforce. We could even see an explosion in enterprise videconferencing. Even consumer apps like Skype and and web conferencing providers are starting to offer HD video. For remote workers, high-quality video provides a “being there” quality that offers them the ability to feel like they’re working in the same office as their collages, even when they’re situated many miles away.

Consumerization of IT

As consumers, we’re all increasingly tech savvy, and more and more of us have access to smartphones and other useful mobile tech that we’d like to use in our daily work. This consumerization of the workplace may cause headaches for IT departments, but it’s an unstoppable tide. To keep workers happy and productive, more firms will have to realize that they’ll need to allow their employees greater flexibility in the technology and tools that they can use at work. We’re already seeing savvy firms offering employees a technology allowance (working in a similar fashion to company car allowances); I expect to see these kind of schemes becoming much more widespread in the coming months.

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