Visit any American city's highways or train stations around rush hour and you'd have a hard time believing it, but the data says otherwise: The traditional 9-to-5 job is becoming just another lifestyle option.

A widely quoted stat from Intuit in 2010 estimates that by 2020, 40% of the workforce will be freelance, up from 30% in 2006. There are several reasons for this. Contract employees are cheaper than full-timers. An "agile" approach to business also means there's more need for contract work. Work itself is increasingly executed over a computer, which means geography is irrelevant.

But the unheralded catalyst in this transformation is software, which now has largely obviated the need to be in the office. Even companies that reconsidered trying to let employees work from home will need to reconsider again since the tools that allow for remote work have gotten so much better.

Rethinking the 9-to-5

Like our educational system, the office-based framework we associate with white-collar work is a holdover from the Industrial Revolution. As Nikil Saval chronicles in Cubed, a history of office culture, offices evolved from single-desk clerkships in the mid-1800s to modern offices in the early part of the 20th century because the complex operations of the railroads required a new breed of workers: middle managers. This organizational structure became a template for companies that sought to take advantage of the new access to the national population that the railroads afforded them.

The global age demands a different structure. Time zones dictate that there's no reason to do work just from 9 to 5. Collaborative software means that work can get done around the clock, handed off from the U.S. team to Asia and then Europe. Because so much of this work is done via the Internet, there's really no need for a physical office.

For such white-collar work, digital transformation is also prompting the rise of an agile workforce since so much work is managed by software systems. Tools like Workfront's (OpenView is an investor) are based on the idea that work is project-based and may consist of an ad hoc team.

Software-driven changes don't just affect white-collar jobs. Ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft are propelled by a back-end system that lets contractors easily do their work and get paid. Others, like Handy, operate on a similar model for home cleaning, repair and moving services while Amazon's Mechanical Turk pays workers for tech grunt work like training AI algorithms, keeping violent fare off of social media and identifying fake news.

But what about office culture?

Despite such enabling tools, there's a strong countervailing trend that embraces the serendipity and cross-pollination that occurs in an office. Companies like Google, Bloomberg and Facebook make a big deal about creating a campus-like atmosphere that is designed to keep workers in the office for as many hours as possible. Cereal bins, free cappuccinos and ping-pong tables are now clichéd fixtures at startups that embrace this ethos.

In recent years, companies including Yahoo, IBM and Best Buy have reversed policies that let employees work remotely. In Yahoo's case, the move, enacted in 2013, has failed to prompt a turnaround. Studies, meanwhile, show that remote workers are more productive.

Office or remote? How about both?

Office or remote work doesn't have to be a vanilla-or-chocolate issue. Workers can be remote part of the week or part of the month and in the office at other times. The norm though is likely to be that some workers will prefer to be remote. They might also prefer to work on a contract basis so they can maximize their autonomy and work from a remote cabin in Idaho if they wish. But others, particularly young workers, will continue to flock to cities to work in offices that provide social connections as well as structure. (Remote or contract employees can also take advantage of co-working spaces like WeWork to reduce their isolation.)

The wild card in this scenario is AI. It's hard to escape the conclusion that those Mechanical Turk workers who are training algorithms are helping build systems that will soon replace them. On the other hand, some predict that AI will create new jobs, like robot supervisor or AI personality designer. The only safe bet is that as workplaces become more agile, workers will need to be more agile too.

Published on: Sep 20, 2017