"Mommy, what does 'commute' mean?"
"It's what people used to do in the old days, Sweetie. They got in cars and drove from their houses to where they worked. Sometimes it took hours and hours."
"Why did they do that?"
"Because their computers and tools were at work. So were the other people they had to talk to."
"That's silly! Why didn't they use their avatars?"
"They didn't have avatars in the old days, Sweetie. When people wanted to do something, they had to actually go someplace and do it."
Nuts? Not so fast. Telecommuting is way up this year, in companies of all sizes. And technologies such as unified communications make it possible for distributed teams to coordinate and collaborate virtually even more effectively than in person. Over the years, my company has documented the rise of the virtual workplace -- with more than 90% of organizations considering themselves virtual.
There's also a growing cultural acceptance of the notion that work does not have to be in a fixed place. Fortune writer Nadira Hira talks about how her generation -- the Milennials -- don't understand the notion of "going to work". They view work as something you do, not someplace you are.
As a certified (some would say certifiable) member of Generation X, I was on the front lines of this trend in the late 1980s. As a grad student I used the Internet to download data files from remote particle accelerators, rather than traveling 1,000 miles to do it in person. Fifteen years later, I was managing a global team of engineers via broadband, presence, messaging and conferencing. And these days, my entire company is virtual. We only meet in person about every six months -- and one year, a colleague who couldn't travel because of surgery participated via video.
The next major leap forward -- and it's coming -- will be when virtual working expands beyond knowledge workers to the kinds of jobs that historically always required physical presence. You've heard about telemedicine, in which doctors conduct surgeries remotely. Now think about how that will play out for cops, nurses and factory workers. With the right robotics at the far end, physical presence will be increasingly unnecessary.
Interestingly, IT departments are behind the virtual workplace curve: As employees overall are increasingly distributed geographically (more than 90% work someplace other than headquarters), IT departments are increasingly centralized. Telecommuting is actually considerably rarer in IT departments than in the workforce at large.
This is a bit scary, for a couple of reasons. First, IT is missing out on a revolution that the rest of the company's experiencing—not great for IT workers. More worryingly, IT departments are increasingly out of touch with the needs, experiences and requirements of the virtual workforce. If the IT version of "collaboration" is "yelling over the cubicle wall", it's hard for IT to put together meaningful strategies for communications and collaboration technologies.
If this describes your team, you need to take two steps. Start working virtually. And start strategizing about how technologies, such as mobility, video and robotics, can revolutionize your workplace.
This story, "Telecommuting on the rise, though not necessarily within IT departments" was originally published by Network World.