If you're like me, you work at least part of the time from a remote location. From your home, a co-working space, the local coffee shop, or even a park — pretty much anywhere you can get a wi-fi connection.

We're not alone.

A growing contingent of American workers are doing this. Some are full-time employees with a flexible arrangement with their employer. Others are self-employed. Still others are contractors or freelancers who work at both their clients’ sites as well as remotely.

Which Is It?

The sentiment toward virtual work has been generally positive over the past few decades.

Some consider it a privilege. Others consider it a boon for productivity. Still others value it for the potential work-life balance it can provide. Not to mention how it circumvents the ever-growing amount of time people waste on commuting to the office

But back in 2013, newly appointed Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer surprised the world with her mandate that workers put in face time at the office, and not just part of the time. Even people with flexible work-from-home agreements were expected to be in the office every day. You can read the actual text of her message to employees here.

So what's the best answer? 

Should we require people to put in face time for team harmony, or is that a dated way to manage a team? 

Let’s take a look at where we've come from with virtual work, and where it will take us.

The Evolution of Virtual Work

While virtual work may seem like a small trend, the numbers might surprise you.

Between 1997 and 2010, some 4.2 million additional people began to work remotely. That represents roughly a 46 percent increase in the total number of virtual workers. Looking back to 1980, you will find that the number has doubled in only 30 years.

Self-employed workers are most likely to work from home full time. In fact, between 2003 and 2010, the number increased from 50 percent to nearly 70 percent of the self-employed. This is on top of the swiftly growing number of self-employed people in the workforce.

You can find ample other sources that illustrate this point: Virtual work is growing in acceptance and we need to get used to it. 

What's Causing This Massive Shift?

The most likely reasons behind this growing trend include:

  1. The recession that hit global markets in 2009, causing businesses to look for places to cut costs via reducing in-office expenses and/or reducing headcount.
  2. Increasing traffic congestion, particularly in major cities, and all of the negative side effects on employees from sitting in gridlock for hours on end — road rage, tardiness to work, reduced productivity, lack of work-life balance, etc.
  3. Easy availability of connectivity via the Internet, including new options for video calls, real-time chat applications and more secure VPN access.
  4. A growing sentiment among the workforce to pursue happiness and balance outside of work.
  5. The mass entry of millennials into the workforce, with Gen Y’s different viewpoints on connectivity, schedules, face time, etc. Being raised with easy access to technology and the Internet, this generation is poised to evolve work even further.

Clearly remote working has become a huge factor in the US economy. In fact, it's spawned its own industry: Co-working as an industry has seen unprecedented growth in the past few years — so much so that sources predict there will be up to 10,000 co-working facilities open across the United States by the end of 2016.

Learning Opportunities

People who co-work report being happier, healthier, more productive, and better compensated than they were before taking the leap to virtual work.

So while the “be in office” mandate may add more opportunities for communication and for teams to interact, it overlooks the upside potential of a happier, more productive workforce.

In the Future: More to Come 

We've passed a point of no return. Virtual work has become an indispensable way to get work done. 

Self-employed professionals typically opt for a virtual office to keep costs down. For anyone who has bootstrapped a business, it pays (literally) to delay introducing physical office overhead for as long as possible. 

Some businesses, like consulting services, can operate without an office forever. I anticipate we will see the share of self-employed working from home easily exceed 75 percent within the next three to five years.

At the same time, businesses with employees are embracing virtual work. According to the Harvard Business Review, AT&T saved $550 million in office costs over seven years from moving to virtual work arrangements. That same article reported that IBM managed to save $100 million a year from making the same choice. 

So it's not just those bootstrapping a business who are realizing the savings. Bigger businesses embrace work-from-home because it literally benefits their bottom line and helps drive improved shareholder value.

That is what we call a win-win-win. The company saves money. Investors see better returns. The employee gets a more flexible work arrangement. Everyone is happy.

Are you working from home full- or part-time? What benefits are you seeing from the arrangement?

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Title image by Tim Gouw

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