Bad news about work­ing from home may have a sil­ver lin­ing

Irish Independent - Farming - - RURAL LIFE -

LIKE most farm­ers I work from home and spend much of every day alone. Over the last num­ber of decades the won­ders of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy have made it pos­si­ble for peo­ple like me to work away from ‘the big of­fice’ and to base them­selves where they like.

Many large com­pa­nies have been en­cour­ag­ing home work­ing and this has proved to be a win-win for the com­pa­nies, for the work­ers and for the com­mu­ni­ties in which they live, es­pe­cially ru­ral ones.

In a fas­ci­nat­ing ar­ti­cle in Quartz, a New York­based news web­site, Sarah Kessler tracks the devel­op­ment of ‘re­mote’ or home work­ing to the ’80s when com­pa­nies like IBM pur­sued this as a pol­icy, with the re­sult that by 2009 up to 40pc of its work­force was work­ing from home. Quot­ing IBM sources, Ms Kessler says the com­pany re­duced its of­fice space by 78mil­lion square feet, thus sav­ing about $100 mil­lion an­nu­ally in the US.

How­ever, it ap­pears that change might be afoot and a re­turn to ‘the of­fice’ or a com­mu­nal base could be in prospect for many whose com­mute cur­rently takes less than a minute. While home work­ing has ben­e­fited com­pa­nies through in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity and re­duced costs, ex­perts are now say­ing that cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion have suf­fered. For in­no­va­tion and cre­ativ­ity to thrive, ap­par­ently di­rect hu­man in­ter­ac­tion with peo­ple en­gaged in the same or sim­i­lar projects is vi­tal.

I work from home and I believe that one can be more pro­duc­tive in this en­vi­ron­ment. Work­ing by your­self you are fully con­cen­trated on the task in hand and, believe it or not, there are few dis­trac­tions.

Not too long ago a friend who was vis­it­ing overnight did his morn­ing’s work at my house, leav­ing af­ter lunch for a meet­ing in the lo­cal­ity. I couldn’t help but no­tice how much time he spent on the phone deal­ing with is­sues that were pe­riph­eral to his work, much of it con­cern­ing ‘of­fice pol­i­tics’.

Over lunch I ad­mit­ted to eavesdropping and asked if the kind of in­ter­ac­tion I had over­heard was typ­i­cal of his day. He said it was, but he still man­aged to get done what he needed to do. In my es­ti­ma­tion the job in ques­tion would have taken an hour, but three hours of time were con­sumed.

The tech­nol­ogy that al­lows for home work­ing has been hugely ben­e­fi­cial to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in that it has en­abled lots of peo­ple to live and work in ru­ral ar­eas, and the devel­op­ments have gone some way to­wards lev­el­ling the play­ing pitch in terms of job op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Home work­ing makes a huge con­tri­bu­tion to the re­duc­tion of the com­muter’s car­bon foot­print and is also great for the qual­ity of fam­ily life. It means there is a pres­ence in the house al­most every day with some­one at home to han­dle emer­gen­cies like the for­got­ten ge­og­ra­phy book or the hurl­ing gear.

De­spite all these ben­e­fits, it ap­pears in­no­va­tion has suf­fered: while home-work­ers do what is ex­pected of them more ef­fi­ciently and at lower cost, groups of hu­man be­ings are more likely to do new things. The buzz­word is now ‘co-lo­ca­tion’ bring­ing work­ers to­gether, maybe not quite back to the of­fice but back to shared spa­ces where hu­man in­ter­ac­tion will lead to greater cre­ativ­ity.

In her Quartz ar­ti­cle, Ms Kessler quotes John Sul­li­van, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment at San Fran­cisco State Univer­sity. Writ­ing two years ago, he con­trasted the home-work strat­egy of IBM with the of­fice-based strat­egy of Face­book and Ap­ple. At that time Ap­ple and Face­book made around $2m per em­ployee, while the IBM fig­ure was $200,000.

Sul­li­van thinks work­ing to­gether in per­son is one of the keys to in­no­va­tion, say­ing: “It turns out the value of in­no­va­tion is so strong that it trumps any pro­duc­tiv­ity gain. ((Re­mote work) was a great strat­egy for the ’90s and the ’80s, but not for 2015.”

In­deed stud­ies have shown that chance meet­ings on cor­ri­dors or at the ‘wa­ter-cooler’ lead to new ideas and prob­lem solv­ing.

So where does all this leave the home-worker in the box room, the farmer in the field and the ru­ral com­mu­nity that hoped tech­nol­ogy was the path to ru­ral jobs growth?

In re­cent decades the devel­op­ment of dis­cus­sion groups has been in­valu­able to farm­ers. These are places and spa­ces where new ideas and in­nova-

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