Last week at work was, perhaps, one of the most excruciating, rather annoying and frustrating weeks that I can remember in my 16 years of work with my current employer and it was not because of the sheer madness, rather hectic and busy work schedules, you know, those are business as usual and quite good fun still (Already having crossed through the second month on the new job!), but more because for the first time in a long while I got to experience what I think is the Achilles Heel for Knowledge (Web) workers in this digital age. Specially, for those of us who are working remotely, away from the traditional office. Yes, indeed, last week I experienced, in full force, what it would be like having an intermittent connection to internal networks, through VPN, as well as the Internet in general, through my ISP. And I tell you, it wasn’t pretty. At all.
Indeed, like I mentioned above, it was one of those dreadful experiences that clearly reminds us all how fragile remote knowledge (Web) workers are in terms of the dependencies on the availability of a good, reliable and accessible VPN and Internet connections. Most folks out there know by now how, thanks to the “Life Without eMail” movement I started over 5 years ago, I have now been successful in having moved over 98% of my daily work to the Web, whether on the Intranet or the Internet. Yet, last week was perhaps one of the quietest times I have gone through that I can remember. Why? Because I was offline for the vast majority of it. Both my VPN connection as well as my local ISP were having continuous issues helping me remain connected and eventually ended up in me putting a bunch of extra hours at work just trying to catch up with things when they would become more stable. And some times they did, and some others, they didn’t.
But right there I realised how when you are working from the traditional office space things are relatively good in terms of connectivity. You know, everyone working along through the same pipes, so to speak, and if the Internet or the Intranet goes down, that’s just fine, it’s down for everyone, so you are in equal terms for that matter and might as well enjoying a coffee or two while the system goes up to support back again several hundreds of office knowledge workers. However, when you are a remote knowledge worker, who depends on the Web for the majority of your work, things are much different.
As a starting point, you are alone. You are, typically, in the middle of nowhere (my closest IBM office is about 1,200 KM away from where I live / work), trying to get connected to the rest of the world that flies passed by you at a lightning speed, and that you hope to jump into the bandwagon which is the Internet, so that you can catch up. Well, last week, my train never showed up, helping me understand the challenges of what it would be like if, all of a sudden, remote knowledge (Web) workers, get to suffer from intermittent (Or permanent, for that matter!) connectivity issues in order to carry out their digital work.
It just won’t happen. And, you know, work won’t stop. It never does. It will just keep carrying on and piling up, which means that, as a remote employee or knowledge worker, your dependency on a good VPN and ISP connectivity are going to be critical. Otherwise, it’s just like one of those dead tentacles you can just chop off and no-one will notice. And while I can see how that may well not be too worrying for companies and businesses, since it’s just an isolated case or two, perhaps a few hundred (tops), the reality is that for you it’s like the whole world just collapsed and decided to stop spinning around.
Yes, I know, I realise I am putting a little bit of extra drama on the huge impact of network connectivity for remote employees, but is it really that much of an exaggeration? Because, somehow I feel it’s not, specially, if you consider how, unless you live in a rather large urban place, you, as a remote worker depending on the Web to get your work done, are doomed and big time. And, most probably, no-one would even notice.
And, let’s face it. We are entering the stage where broadband penetration, at least, in (Western) Europe, is pretty much a good myth, specially, if you don’t live in big cities. If you live in relatively small towns, or rural / remote areas, that pervasive connectivity is non-existent, which comes to fight the argument that the Web keeps us all hyperconnected and networked no matter what. Well, it matters, connectivity, at least, in Europe, is not as pervasive as what most folks feel, and if you have been reading my recent business trips across several European countries, it’s more of a wider issue than anything else, not necessarily related to a specific country or local region.
It bugs me. I tell you, it bugs me quite a lot, actually, because, last week, I realised how I was no longer capable of accessing the most precious thing that makes the Internet a wonderful thing: free information. And I don’t mean free as in you don’t have to pay for it. I mean it from the perspective of no longer being capable of accessing free flows of information to allow me to get my work done in an effective and efficient manner. Never mind the good amount of conversations I could no longer have in terms of nurturing and continuing to build my personal business relationships, including blogging away over here, which I couldn’t, as some of you have well observed through offline interactions.
Ugly. Very ugly state of things, if we have to keep depending on that reliability of connectivity for that major shift of the knowledge workforce that’s already well underway, where more and more people are becoming remote employees, or even no longer attached to companies but doing freelance work, and still needing to have that connection to the Web. That shift is not going to change, nor disappear, but to accelerate greatly over the next couple of years and seeing how urban places are starting to become more jammed and overpopulated, it’s going to be a huge issue if those remote workers from small, rural places can’t keep connected in a reliable manner. Or if, all of a sudden, ISPs decide to sacrifice their quality service to reduce costs or companies decide that good, robust VPN solutions are not worth the investment anymore, therefore forcing their remote employees to trash off the flexibility they once had and return back to the traditional office, no matter at what costs.
Of course, we have got email to fix that problem. I am sure you all have been thinking about that very same thought all along while reading this article, and, to be frank, no, we don’t. Email will not solve the problem, because, yes, you can work offline through your mailbox and everything, but you still need the connectivity to send those emails across and when exchanging large rich media files, or presentations, proposals, status project reports and what not; you are going to have a need for a rather fast and robust network connection. We are no longer in the mid-90s where a regular analogue line could get you through the daily email in a matter of minutes. Plus, I am not sure I would want to venture to state that email is safe in the current workplace just because we don’t have enough broadband capacity or a rather robust VPN set of solutions. It would be just totally wrong and for a good number of reasons.
We need to step up, we need to level up the game and start embracing the fact that over the course of time, the vast majority of your companies’ work is going to be executed, done and dealt with by people who are not working at the traditional office anymore, and, as such, we would need to ensure they are reliably connected to the Web to get their work done. As more and more of us progress further away from firewalls and internal protected networks into the Open Social Web, I guess we would be saying good-bye to VPNs, but then again, if you have been watching the news over the course of the last few months, and, lately, in the last week or so, you would know how some conversations would still need to take place in a secure, private, protected space, although still open and accessible to everyone concerned (i.e. employees, customers and business partners, for that matter).
So the need for ISPs to understand how freelancers work remotely and how much they rely on that network connection for a whole lot more than just sending an email, also correlates to the need from businesses to understand how critical good, reliable VPN connections are to allow those employees to stay connected in a world that’s become more virtual, distributed and remote than ever. Upping the game will get us all there, eventually. Not doing anything, though, thinking things will be all right, after all, will help us go into a Dark Age I doubt we’d ever be able to recover from accordingly. All of us.
Now, imagine if all ISPs, while they are going to become more under pressure over time, decide to take us through on to those dark ages … for good. Imagine, if, all of a sudden, after seeing last few weeks’ global events all over the place (Take your pick as there are a lot of those to choose from!) things just collapse. Just like that. Well, don’t imagine it. Let’s just work really hard on not making it happen any time soon, because somehow the trend keeps showing how we are heading towards that collapse, without remedy. I know, I know, I don’t plan to finish off this article with a negative thought of what might happen. Instead, I would want to finish it off with a rather outrageous, optimistic and heretic trend of thought on what’s at stake at this point in time, so please do allow me to leave you with this absolutely stunning, rather inspiring and incredibly thought-provoking presentation from one of my favourite thinkers of the 21st century that I just can’t have enough of in terms of showing the way of where we are heading, not only in the business world, but in our society. Check out Manuel Castells‘ recent RSA speech on “Networks of Outrage and Hope“, which will also confirm, for that matter, why social networking is here to stay and for a good few years, not only as matter of expressing yourself, but perhaps altogether as a matter of finding a new purpose, a new focus and a new meaning altogether: a better world for all of us.