Say what you want about millennials. Are they glued to their phones? Yes. Do they have short attention spans? (Everyone in this day and age just might.) What about the fact that they slowly made us all believe jeans are business casual? All tired generational jokes aside, it’s undeniable that millennials have brought about swift and enduring changes in the workplace. With the workforce starting to turn over and young people taking over leadership roles, it’s time for companies to get smart and start listening to this scrappy, and at times defiant, bunch.
Perhaps the most disruptive change brought forth by millennials is the mainstreaming of remote work. Today, it’s not uncommon to see job postings that list the ability to work from home as a benefit right alongside paid gym memberships, parking passes, great healthcare, and sabbaticals. Job prospects are actively looking to work for companies that don’t require them to show up to a brick-and-mortar office, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In the future, whether or not employers partially integrate or fully adopt remote work capabilities will determine how attractive they are to the burgeoning workforce.
It’s important to take a step back and consider why this generation is so drawn to being able to work outside of the office. First off, they are much more demanding when it comes to the autonomy and flexibility they are able to exert over their schedules. For millennials, maximum efficiency doesn’t exist within the traditional workday. Showing up to the office for propriety’s sake is seen as a huge roadblock to productivity. If there is no need to show face at the office (i.e., no meetings or need for internal collaboration), why can’t I take a day to work from the comfort of my home or favorite coffee shop? Simply put, the mindset is to work smarter, not harder.
They are more acutely tapped into environmental concerns than generations prior. Two-hour commutes in gas-guzzling cars tax their ethos and discourage talented employees from taking jobs that are geographically inconvenient. If companies don’t have the capacity to meet these types of employees in the middle, they simply lose out on a great candidate. They also risk branding themselves as a company that doesn’t empower its employees to do their best work. At worst, they are seen as having little faith in their staff to get the job done without being physically present or babysat.
Consider the workforce that comprises Silicon Valley. From the top tech companies to the most cutting edge startups, recruiters are searching for the best and brightest engineers, developers, and programmers from all corners of the globe. Their products are bold and disruptive, requiring equally ambitious employees to come aboard. Therefore, their recruiters must tap into a diverse candidate pool consisting of prospects that come from different ethnic groups, perspectives, and locations. To foster the retention of such a unique staff, these companies have invested the time and resources into building a remote infrastructure that works for not just the company, but the employees that keep it running. This modern employer-employee relationship is contingent upon the principles of mutual trust, respect, flexibility, and efficiency.
All of the above sounds almost utopian. And, as a business owner who has to be mindful of a bottom line, you may be questioning the merits of this “mutually beneficial” relationship. This level of discernment is not only reasonable, but it’s also absolutely necessary. How do you keep your remote workforce on track, on the same page, and in-line with your business’ standards when you can’t see them face-to-face every day? This is the central question that needs to be answered if you are to be convinced that integrating remote capabilities into your workflow will live up to the hype.
That’s where technology comes into play. The popularity spike surrounding remote work has not been without advancements in the technology to actually pull it off. That is, remote work has gone way beyond the boundaries of hosting conference calls and dialing in from your mobile phone. While this is still a great tool for teleworking, it is definitely not the only one we have at our fingertips in this day and age. In fact, real-time communications (RTC) technology is edging us closer to the reality of simulating lifelike engagements and fostering both transparency and team member accountability. Here are some technologies that are already well at play and some predictions to where they might go in the near future:
Cloud-based collaboration platforms
From Microsoft Teams to Slack, there are emerging cloud-based collaboration platforms popping on the scene every day. Some are more comprehensive, allowing team members to one-off colleagues through direct messages, host video conferences and even access important shared files. Others are more analog, serving as an ongoing, cloud-based chat room for smaller teams. Either way, they have one thing in common — the ability for team members to access important information and one another outside the walls of an office. At this point, it’s pretty commonplace for companies to host their unified communications in the cloud. As long as there is a strong enough internet connection, employees are empowered to work from anywhere and host meetings at the drop of a hat.
But this is just the beginning. These collaboration platforms are projected to get more complex and sophisticated. That is, RTC and workflow are becoming increasingly seamless. Consider Microsoft Teams. When the platform first came out, it simply allowed for colleagues to collaborate via messaging and video chat. Today, the platform has married RTC with Microsoft’s software suite, enabling team members to work on documents, spreadsheets and powerpoints together and in real-time (much like Google’s cloud-based suite). These types of integrations will undoubtedly make us question our traditional definition of an “office” or “workspace.”
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Virtual meetings now and in the future
When comparing video conferencing to conference calls, there are some obvious perks. Video chat allows participants to be much more cued into mannerisms, facial expressions, and tone. When you think of it this way, advancing from phone to video was natural and intuitive. Have you ever gotten off of the phone with someone and thought, “I wonder how they actually feel about the plan of action I proposed?” You’re not alone. Video conferencing strengthens lines of communications by allowing us to show our most telling cards — our faces. This tool is especially crucial for remote workers, as the majority of their interactions rely on video chats to serve as a complete substitute for face-to-face meetings.
So, what’s the natural progression beyond video? Likely virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) and even holograms will be used to take virtual meetings to the next level. Once the technology is realized, we could be able to project ourselves into virtual conference rooms powered by AR headsets. This could help foster a more interactive experience, and make it less likely that attendees’ attention wanders or loses interest. There is also a strong possibility that we will leverage holograms to simulate more lifelike meetings. Or, unified communications might come embedded with a holographic assistant that helps team members remember important meetings or where a file sits. This might sound like a scene from the Jetson’s, but we are well on our way.
Now it’s time to mention 5G
We wouldn’t be having a conversation about next-generation technology if we didn’t mention 5G, right? The rollout of this new mobile broadband network is full of promise — both realistic and unfounded. The most important takeaway is that 5G will provide us the fastest download and upload speeds we have seen to date. That is, latency, or the time it takes for our devices to communicate with wireless networks, will decrease exponentially. But, what does this mean for remote work? A 5G reality means platforms powered by RTC will edge even closer to “real-time.” Soon, we just might be able to communicate with each other virtually as fast as if we are sitting in the same room. For employers hosting remote work infrastructure, there comes a relief knowing that the technology can actually serve as a substitute for the real thing.
5G also means networks can successfully help platforms scale to meet ever-increasing demands. This means we can host large conferences or company-wide meetings touting powerful interacting technologies without fearing lags or buffering. This will squelch the concern that virtual communications can never provide the same efficiency as conversations in real-life.
From keeping the cost of overhead down to boosting employee morale, the benefits of allowing workplace flexibility are real. So, what’s the first step a business can take to offer remote opportunities? Let’s put these futuristic predictions to rest for the time being and consider how integrating this technology can happen in the here and now. First, employers must assess the individual needs of their businesses. Should you keep a brick-and-mortar and simply integrate optional, back-up or circumstantial remote work functions? Or, is your staff so sprawled out that nixing your office all together makes sense for the bottom line? Whatever your specific needs are, honor them and let them inform how you adopt the technology. Just because innovation is moving fast, doesn’t mean your business needs to. Integrate what you can and continue to revisit the question of how remote work technologies can work for your business, not the other way around.