Low-Residency Education and the Future of Work

A contrarian view about the back to the office movement.

October 12, 2017

We are in a moment when telecommuting seems to be falling out of favor. The conventional wisdom about remote work is shifting.  Once held up as the future of work, telecommuting is now viewed as antithetical to the needs of today’s agile organizations.

We hear that employees need to share space in order to have serendipitous conversations. The speed of work is said to be increasing, as increasing levels of competition combine with the ability to make data driven innovations. Under this new regime of speed, the only way to harness the creative powers of teams is to have everyone sharing the same physical work space.

This back to the office movement is sometimes traced back to Yahoo’s 2012 pivot away from telecommuting. Recently, IBM announced that it was shifting away from a policy to encourage remote work.  

Today, less than 3 percent of full-time office workers are full-time telecommuters. This compares to 40% of employees who regularly work remotely, and two-thirds who occasionally work from home.

Here is where I am going to make a contrarian prediction. I believe that in my working lifetime (I was born in 1969) that most workers will work mostly from home.

I predict that work will follow a similar trajectory as education, and that the future of both is low-residency. Offices will not disappear, just as campuses will not vanish. Rather, the office and the campus will be redesigned as places for concentrated bursts of maximum engagement, interaction, and collaboration.

There are all sorts of reasons why the future of both work and education is low-residency. (Here I’m stretching “residency" to mean “resident in the office during working hours”.)

The first reason is productivity.

Low-residency work and educational models enable the buildings, offices, and campuses in which we work to accommodate more people in the same physical spaces. The reason for this is that rates of utilization can grow.  The space can be intensively used for the times when it makes sense for people (students and workers) to gather together.  This will enable smaller and less expensive offices and campuses, purpose built to suit the sort of learning and work that is best done when people are in the same physical space.

The second reason is quality.

We are in early days of thinking about how to design physical places around collaboration. If collaboration is our goal, then the campuses and offices that we spend time in will evolve to suit this need. At the same time, the tools for digital collaboration are rapidly improving.  Physical distances need not impede collaboration, as long as there is a strong degree of trust and open lines of communicators amongst work colleagues, students, and professors.

What we are learning in the world of low-residency education is that for some purposes - and I would argue that this is mostly true of graduate and professional degrees - that low-residency is best.

Just as there are cases where a fully bundled residential education is preferable, such as with 18-22 year old first-time college students, there will be cases where everyone working in an office makes sense. What sort of work is most comparable to a traditional undergraduate education experience I’m not quite sure, but is worth discussing.

For the majority of work and education, the best option will be to combine home and office/campus. A low-residency approach to learning and work aligns most closely with the family demands of today’s students and employees, while also enabling the sort of collaboration and interaction that is necessary for creative employment and effective learning.

Campuses and offices can be smaller. Classrooms and offices can be largely replaced by spaces for collaboration and interaction.

Online platforms for collaborative learning and for collaborative work will continue to evolve. Interestingly, the same technologies that we use for distance learning will be used for remote work (and vice versa).

Work places and learning places will increasingly resemble one another. I can imagine a time when it is difficult to tell if one were on a college campus or a corporate headquarters.

How can we apply what we are learning about education to influencing the future of work?

Are you a low-residential worker?


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