9 A.M. MEETING ALERT!: Your boss is talking, but you're not in the office. You're sipping coffee in your jammies. No problem. You boot up the Telework 3000 and it's as if you're in the conference room. At least you think so — you haven't been there since 2017, when you traded your E-Z Pass for a houseboat in Hawaii. Now, if you could just ignore the late-night texts from your colleagues.
It might get lonely around the water cooler by 2020. What we call telecommuting will evolve into the "flexible work environment," in which firms let employees work from home on their own schedules. Technology — mobile computers, broadband networks, and immersive, high-definition "telepresence" videoconferencing — will accelerate this long-brewing trend but so will a changing workplace culture. "Companies are finding that workers like to be trusted," says Paul Rowson, managing director of the human resources association WorldAtWork. "Top performers tend to be more productive and more engaged when given a bit of freedom."
This long leash might benefit older workers who can work without managerial oversight. And experienced employees will have lots of company, as more of us expect to work late in life. Avoiding hassles such as commuting will likely hasten a shift from full-time to flextime, rather than retirement. "Maybe you can take that long vacation you always dreamed of and earn a paycheck while you're doing it," says workplace futurist Joanne H. Pratt. But there's a downside to being allowed to work from anywhere: being required to work from anywhere. "As more people become available 24/7, there'll be an expectation that you will be, too," Pratt says. You won't have to go into the office — but you might not be able to get away from it, either.