The concept of a distributed workforce and remote work is firmly entrenched in the psyche and practices of U.S. corporations and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. The number of people working virtually is expected to rise during the next 12 months, according to a new 2010 online poll conducted by Right Management. Right Management polled 330 U.S. employers in September on what change they anticipated in the number of virtual workers in their organization. The survey found that three out of four organizations already have people who work remotely, and of those employers nearly half expect their number to increase or significantly increase during the year ahead.
The impact of a technology-enabled distributed work environment is less clear. Will this be good for individuals? Will it free people up to work in far-away locations where the quality of life is advantageous? Will this be good for business? GigaOM will address the later question at their NetWork 2010 conference on December 9 on the future of work.
Recently I read a blog post with a different twist on the importance of physical location. John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, co-chairmen of the Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge and well-known authors and experts on technology and innovation, opined, "Location does matter and will continue to matter." They believe relocating to large urban areas is becoming more attractive for people, not less, despite the digital infrastructure that makes it possible to work from distant towns. They noted that 50 percent of the world's population now lives in dense cities, versus 30 percent sixty years ago.
The reasons for this, they say, are twofold: face-to-face contact is key to the sharing of tacit knowledge which is increasingly valuable and serendipity plays a factor in finding a large pool of talent (when large numbers of people are drawn to a city the probability of encountering others of the same talent increases). So while new technologies make working at the beach possible, they also have the potential to make cities more attractive.
If they are right, what does this mean for the distributed workforce? Will companies find their employee bases in large cities increasing along with a need to increase a company's physical presence in those cities? How will virtual work and physical engagement meld together? Will there be a return to more face-to-face contact to spur innovation and locate communities of talent?
What do you think? Does location matter for innovation?