The geographical ambivalence of  work

The Internet continues to generate unexpected consequences. The ability to send information anywhere, immediately, at minimal cost, means most white collar work is now geographically ambivalent.

To the reader of this article, it doesn’t matter where I live, work or play. I could be writing these words in a hammock on an island in the Pacific; perched precariously on a barstool in a pub in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland; or at my desk in Brampton, Ont., Canada.

Those reading this article on a Web site don’t care where the Web site is physically located. From the viewer’s perspective, the ‘physical location’ of a Web site is a concept without meaning because it has zero bearing on how we judge the value of a Web site.

Yet…almost every organization in the world is currently structured as if the geographical location of its buildings and employees does matter. This difference between how we designed our social infrastructure yesterday, and what we are capable of today, should provide a hint of the societal dislocations in store for us tomorrow.

Most of us commute to work. I’m one of those still rare individuals who works less than 20 feet from my bedroom. Most commuters could work from home, and just as you don’t care where I wrote this, their companies should not care where their work is done. Yet they do, because they are used to overseeing employees on a daily basis.

While every manager will eventually have to address the work-at-home issues, the geographical ambivalence of work has implications far larger than telecommuting. It is fuelling the growing trend towards offshore outsourcing.

Folks in the IT industry are the first to encounter the impact of this trend. IBM recently announced it intends to move tens of thousands of jobs offshore. Call centres of all types are also looking to offshore as a way to reduce costs.

Here’s the pressure point of leverage. The cost of living is not the same everywhere in the world. Nor are the expectations of workers. It is cheaper to develop a system in India, or Eastern Europe than it is to create the same system in North America, or Western Europe.

We can rant and rave about this all we want. We can complain that foreigners are taking away our work. We can try to protect ‘work’ as a national resource. But in a global economy where technology eradicates geographical distance in the blink of an eye – and the click of a mouse – the notion of “foreigner” is a quaint one, more at home in the Victorian era than in the 21st century.

If you like the taste of irony, this topic is rich with it. As we improve technology to increase our ability to produce, we lower the barriers to production location.

Once upon a time we found it cheaper to import labour to build the railways in North America. Today the information highway enables us to export a parti

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