Is Remote Working Really The future? (or: how biology influences the way we work)

Posted 9th May 2017

With more companies allowing employees to work from home and with technology allowing people to never have to step into an office, is the future of the workforce really remote? Is technology and a flexible attitude all we need not to commute? It would seem most people are familiar with the term “remote working”, but perhaps only a few really understand what it entails. Video calling, emails, even the telephone, all play their part in keeping humans connected, but is this connectivity enough to allow us to disconnect from each other?

Over the last few years, and as a direct result of the rise of the ‘always-at-home-freelancer’ (developers, graphic designers, copywriters etc.), there has been an increase in community/co-working/Surf Office-type working spaces specifically for people who tend to work in their own bubble, but don’t want to be on their own while working. Time enough has passed to assess the modern freelancer and those who’ve been remote-working for some time now know the realities of being isolated from the herd and the detrimental effects it has on the human psyche. Gathering together, as we’ve done for hundreds of thousands of years, is part of our natural instincts. Herding is biologically programmed into us (see a Washington State University study here). Collaborating with other humans to grow personal resources, increase creatively through philosophic discussion, fulfil our emotional needs and attain more as an individual but within a group…that’s what humans do. Herding evolved from the need for individuals to better themselves, not for the overall betterment of society, but it worked and the intrinsic need to gather proved its worth.

What we’re trying to say is that working remotely isn’t in our nature. We know working together reaps greater rewards, that’s why we do it. So, although the technology might be just where we need it to be (with the internet being almost three decades old and capable of allowing us to run empires online) and the companies we work for are more flexible with regard to working arrangements (a result of millennial expectations) and), in spite of all this, everyone working remotely all the time won’t happen. It would go against our biology and a behaviour so innate, fighting it would oppose one of the fundamentals that make us human.

An aspect that cannot be overlooked in any discussion about workplaces of the future is the growing automation of jobs currently performed by humans. In 2016 a Tokyo-based insurance company, Fukoku Mutual Life, made thirty four employees redundant, replacing them with IBM’s Watson Explore artificial intelligence (A.I.). The role of the A.I. is to analyse documents and files relating to hospital stays and their respective insurance claims. Through greater operational efficiencies and fewer errors, the company will save considerable time and expense and the A.I. will have paid for itself in less than two years. Are you still thinking about remote working? Do the robots have your attention?

One hundred percent remote-working may be the choice of some (those who still have jobs in a hyper-automated future) but they will be the exception. Millennials are looking for flexible working, but don’t want to be shut out of the social and creative benefits that come when working in close physical proximity to others. Where and how we will work in the future will be dictated in part by our biology and in part by the technology available at any given time. Humans are social creatures and cooperating within complex societal structures got us to where we are today. Remote working is here to stay, but so too is working collaboratively in shared spaces.

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