Technological advances and changes in the global economy are motivating and enabling an increasing geographic distribution of work. Today, the geographic distance between an average pair of workers is increasing in industries ranging from banking, to wine production, to clothing design. According to Bureau of Labor surveys of workers, more people worked for an employer with more than one location in 1998 (61.8 percent) than in 1979 (52.3 percent). Many workers today communicate regularly with coworkers at a distance; some monitor and manipulate tools and objects at a distance. Work teams are spread across different cities or countries. For example, research and development laboratories are increasingly deploying labs in countries other than the home of their headquarters (Brockhoff 1998), and software development teams increasingly are composed of programmers from around the globe (Carmel 1999). Joint ventures and multiorganizational projects are pervasive and entail work in many places. Complex work arrangements involving long-distance commuting and multiple employers are becoming commonplace. Some spectacular examples—ranging from the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trading empire in the seventeenth century to the recent development of the Linux computer operating system—suggest that distributed work arrangements can be innovative, flexible, and highly successful.
Nonetheless, geographically distributed work has always presented challenges to the conduct of work and personal life. Distributed work can change the way people communicate, how they organize themselves and their work, and the manner in which they live. Research from over thirty years ago to the present suggests that physical proximity can have powerful and positive effects in everyday life as well as in science, government, and business (Sykes, Larntz, and Fox 1976). Moreover, proximity has proven to be hard to simulate through modern technologies such as videoconferencing.