As I type this blog from my home office, in a blissful (if rare) moment of children quietly finishing chores, two recent stories from The Wall Street Journal on working remotely have caught my eye. On May 18, the headline was “IBM, a Pioneer of Remote Work, Calls Workers Back to the Office (0),” and just a few weeks later, the June 4 headline was “Why Remote Work Can’t Be Stopped (1).” As a resident of the Greater Los Angeles area, where a 25-mile commute can take two hours — each way — telecommuting isn’t just “green.” It’s survival.
To quote the most recent Wall Street Journal article, “Surveys done by Gallup indicate that in 2016, the proportion of Americans who did some or all of their work from home was 43%, up from 39% in 2012.” That’s an amazing jump in such a short period of time, but it doesn’t mean this trend will increase year after year at the same rate. Businesses struggle with how to track remote workers’ productivity and how to increase involvement and collaboration when not all workers are in the same space. But there are many benefits to a remote workforce for businesses of all sizes: Increased worker job satisfaction and retention, the ability to spend less on renting office space, and decreased carbon emissions. (Ok, I threw in that last one — I’m in Los Angeles, after all.)
Regardless of the software used and the accountability structures devised, remote work for any company is only possible due to one commercial fact — past investment in the underlying infrastructure of the internet has been high. As workers become less tethered to the traditional work office model, investment will need to grow to give workers viable telecommuting options.
But right now, when we need it for more than just HD cat videos, investment in internet infrastructure is slowing and even outright decreasing (2). Not for lack of demand, but because of the imposition of Title II regulation by our own Federal Communications Commission. Title II is a price regulation statute that has been around since the 1930s, and investors know it means higher risk and less return for investment — this adds up to less investment in infrastructure for the future.
And what kind of future might it be for the American worker? Surely before my colleague Bret Swanson’s world of working robots (3), there will be a working world linked by the internet. Uber has showed how supply and demand can be linked electronically, but that’s just scratching the surface. Consider the basics. For now, employees may link to the internet by their own ISP, and their employers may use a different link. Might they both access the backbone directly in the future? Many employers, universities, and other large institutions already do — think how Netflix got rid of the middle man and started linking directly with Comcast (in a move wildly misreported and misunderstood for the exciting change (4) it was). And yes, some employers will need special types of internet access to avoid latency, jitter, and other problems that our current IP protocols find hard to avoid. We will need a regulator who won’t get in the way of new innovations, business ideas, and even new internet engineering (5) standards. It’s time to regulate for the modern era. It’s time to get back to work (remotely).