When Yahoo’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer banned working from home back in 2013, it accentuated a debate that had been percolating for some time. Does working remotely destroy corporate culture? Does it hamper productivity? Does it erode accountability? These are the questions employers have been forced to ask in a digital age.
Although the furor over working from home has subsided since Mayer’s controversial ban, a similar debate is likely to emerge as we move from a purely digital age into the age of automation. With self-driving cars poised to storm the streets in the coming years, disrupting everything from the auto industry to mass transit, business leaders must start thinking about how a driverless future will impact workforce productivity.
The work from home debate is largely binary. You can either work from the office or from a fixed location outside of the office such as your home or a coffee shop. The advent of autonomous vehicles (AVs), however, creates a third option: working from car.
By relieving people of their driving responsibilities, AVs—specifically the Level 5 vehicles that will enable complete autonomy—will free up hundreds of hours per passenger per year. While some have hypothesized that this time will be used to have more sex or catch up on sleep, this reclaimed time could also be used productively—additional productivity that could have a direct and significant impact on economic activity. Despite this potential, however, AVs also run the risk of irritating employers that want to keep butts in chairs and bodies in buildings.
Many analysts are theorizing that the increased efficiency and connectivity offered by autonomous vehicles will foster a “post-urban” society in which a larger percentage of the population will live in the suburbs and exurbs. If companies still require workers in these extra-urban areas to make a lengthy commute to the office, they’ll likely have to contend with employees coming in “late” and claiming that they were working from the car. Additionally, people may also be motivated to take longer out-of-office lunch breaks, knowing that they can work on their way to and from a restaurant if they have to.
On the other hand, the ability to work from the car may also impose additional demands on employees, increasing their workload rather than freeing up time. Today, employees by and large are not expected to respond to emails or join a video conference during their commute. In the age of automation, however, workers may be required to work while in transit. For some office workers, the car may become little more than a mobile desk.
These scenarios also have implications for the future of office space. For certain professionals like lawyers and accountants with independent practices, for example, it may make more sense to use their car as their office rather than carry the overhead of both a car and a brick and mortar space. The car-as-office could augment a home office and allow these professionals to bring their office to clients rather than force clients to come to their office. In this way, AVs have the potential to create an entirely new type of usable space.
In order to enable this type of transformative impact, AVs will have to be designed in a manner that allows for modularity, personalization, health and efficiency. Some automakers, including Audi, have already started imagining what the interior of self-driving cars will need to look like for maximum productivity. Other forward-thinking companies in the space are also positioning themselves for success in the AV age. Gentex, the leading manufacturer of auto-dimming car mirrors, for example, is expanding into connected car technology to enhance the in-car experience for AV passengers. BMW, Panasonic, Bosch and Valeo are all similarly working on passenger experience and AV interior design initiatives. All of these projects are critical to building autonomous vehicles that can serve as platforms for productivity.
Much has been written about the potential impact AVs will have on traffic patterns, road safety, commute times and urban living. Less has been said, however, about their potential to transform the future of work. How do corporate decision makers preempt, adapt to and harness the potential of autonomous vehicles? How do employers ensure that as self-driving cars positively impact how we move, they also improve how we work? These are the new questions leaders will have to ask in the work from car era.