Since the advent of cell phones and the mobile Internet, workers have been freed from the confines of an office — and work in coffee shops, hotel business centers, airport lounges, at home, and even at customer offices. High-speed Internet connections at home, combined with secure, virtual private network connections to the office, mean that workers can be just as productive working at home as in an office.
Another big trend in corporate IT, supporting the move toward a more mobile workforce, is called BYOT, or “Bring Your Own Tech.” That means companies are letting workers choose their own tablets, iPads, and iPhones for business use. Many companies simply provide workers a stipend, that covers all or part of the cost of providing their own IT work tools. This model of IT originally got started as an effort to accommodate mobile workers using their own tech to work from home.
Despite famous public backtracking on the movement toward a mobile workforce by Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer, most technology experts agree the trend is here to stay. Even governments are encouraging employers to find ways to give employees more latitude to work from home, as fewer people commuting means less investment in infrastructure and lower demand on public services.
Within two years, 37.2% of the global workforce will be mobile.
IDC predicts that within another two years, 37.2% of the global workforce will be mobile. The definition of a mobile worker ranges from road warriors that spend the bulk of their time either working from home or a customer site, to those sharing desk space at the office. There is also a raft of new startups providing technology to enable remote workers. One fact is certain — workers will be spending less time in the office in the days to come.
One of the reasons most often cited by employers for letting more staff work from home is the cost of office space. The fewer workers tying up a desk, the less room a company needs. While the cost of commercial office space has gone up as the recession slowly heals, the demand for commercial office space has remained relatively flat. Even in Washington, DC the vacancy rate stands at 10.3%, a number more reminiscent of recessionary days.
Commercial real estate agents blame the slow recovery of the economy, but that explanation overlooks a trend that was already in place before the recovery even began. Employers, tired of being at the mercy of rent increases for office space, are finding it cheaper to let employees work from home, while new software technology gives them more ability to keep tabs on mobile workers when they’re away from the office.
One new piece of technology for remote workers is the telepresence robot, that allows absent workers to interact face to face with colleagues in the office. Companies experimenting with telepresence robots include Microsoft, Coca Cola, and Splunk. There are medical telepresence robots in use at some hospitals and remote care facilities, that give doctors access to real time patient data along with face to face consults.
It seems unlikely that the move to a more mobile workforce will put a dent in high-demand markets for office space like Hong Kong, New York, and Miami. But it will, over time, create an office space equilibrium, in which employers are no longer at the mercy of never-ending rent increases on their office lease. Suppliers of commercial office space will have to walk a finer line between increasing margins and not prompting renters to put employees to work at home and on the road.
Competition is a wonderful thing, even when that competition comes from an unlikely direction. Businesses strapped by the cost of office space now have viable alternatives to adding more and more space.