Alexandra Rees is one of the new management breed. She works in London for Quirk, a digital marketing firm where she advises clients including SABMiller – but much of that is done from a distance. Telecommuting has surged by nearly 80% since 2005, according to data compiled by the US Census Bureau.
Disruptive innovation is changing the way people communicate. Smartphones and the web have opened up new channels of communication. The globalized nature of business means managers are under increasing pressure to lead teams in multiple locations.
Remote working was once a distant dream but Alexandra illustrates the way businesses are adapting new technology to connect workforces. She says virtual team meetings are common but working remotely allows her to focus on client solutions.
When she graduates from business school in a few years’ time this will be a bigger focus on MBA curricula. Academics are increasingly interested in preparing the world’s future business leaders for a career in which technology will play a starring role.
Apple, Google and Facebook are already the rockstars of the business world but remote working is beaming its way into many more industries. Barclays, for instance, introduced high-definition video conferencing across the group that has saved approximately £50 million in travel costs this year.
Technology is seen by both workers and HR professionals as the biggest factor that will transform the workplace. A BusinessBecause survey of MBAs found that 73% of respondents believe the majority of the working week will be based remotely by 2050.
PwC forecasts that just 14% of the UK workforce wants to work in a traditional office environment. A survey of 500 HR workers found 58% are already preparing for this shift.
“Technology will continue to transform how we will work over the next decade,” says Michael Rendell, global HR consulting leader at PwC. “Managers need to develop a clear culture where technology works for everyone,” he says.
Marc Wells, principal learning technologist at Imperial College Business School, says that remote working has a number of advantages: it increases productivity by allowing workers to more easily concentrate, for example.
“Many also find that it can help reduce stress,” he says, by cutting out the dreaded daily commute.
It can also open up more employment opportunities for graduates. Remote working provides businesses with a new way to capture talent, according to Dr Chris Dalton, personal development leader at Henley Business School. “Flexible working is here to stay in developed economies,” he says.
Virgin Media Business forecasts that 60% of office based employees will regularly work from home by 2022.
The explosion of online learning at business schools is the first step in preparing the world’s future managers to work remotely, according to Raffaello Balocco, director of the full-time MBA at MIP Politecnico di Milano.
Tech is disrupting the business education market. Like many schools, MIP has opened up online and flexible learning courses that mirror what many students believe will be the office of the future.
“Learning from the comfort of the home has proved an attractive proposition,” says Raffaello. “In this way it is possible to ‘learn’ how to work remotely, exploiting all the features of a digital platform,” he says.
Business schools are also increasingly using technology to develop interviewing skills and for conducting employers’ interviews.
At Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, for instance, 27% of remote advising has been conducted through online and voice communications channels and 23% of employer interviews have taken place on webinars.
Yet many business schools say they cannot replicate work – or education – through an online platform. There are still many obstacles to this trend being more widely adopted – accreditation, value and the tech.
“The challenges of working remotely are of course significant and technology alone is not enough,” says Milton Sousa, director of MBA programs at Rotterdam School of Management.
These include limitations in developing relationships and non-verbal communication forms. “Business schools are rarely the source of novel organisational design, because theory often lags behind practice,” says Chris at Henley.
However, the benefits to organizations are clear. Michael O'Leary, professor of innovation at Georgetown, says flexible working allows firms to reduce their footprints in high priced real estate markets.
This flies against the current commercial property boom in many cities. According to data compiled by Deloitte, the amount of office space being constructed in London, for example, is at a 10-year high. “It [remote working] can cut down on commuting time and all sorts of costs associated with office life,” Chris says.
However, many companies are still reluctant to trust their employees to work from a distance. Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer last year infamously banned her employees from remote working, which was widely reported in the media.
Yet research by Stanford University found that remote workers are 13% more productive and take fewer sick days than commuters.
But some workers are weary of the android invasion. The BusinessBecause survey of MBA graduates found that roughly 40% of respondents believe that both accounting and financial trading will be carried out by machines by 2050.
“Virtual work will be far more effective when teams show greater levels of trust, openness and cohesiveness,” says Milton at Rotterdam.
If MBAs can predict the future, one in which blended forms of work see employees rotate from office and home looks increasingly likely.
For Alexandra, it makes sense to operate on a partly remote basis. She works with global brands including Unilever and Warner Brothers to develop their digital communications strategies. “But rewards are based on the success of my team and we connect daily – virtually or in person,” she says.
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