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On a recent trip to Arizona, I rented a car at the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport… from a woman in Oklahoma City. The implications of this for the future of work and leisure are intriguing.
For those of you who have not had an experience of this kind, let me tell you how it works.
After queuing at the rental counter, a Hertz employee steered me toward an installation with a telephone receiver and a video screen. The size and shape of the installation were similar to a stand-up video game like Pac-Man. As I picked up the phone a woman appeared on screen and greeted me warmly.
From there we went through the usual rigamarole when renting a car. Did I want extra insurance? Did I want Hertz to fill up the gas tank when I returned the car or would I? And so on.
At one point I asked the woman: “so, where are you exactly?”
“Oklahoma City,” she said.
“Go Thunder!” I replied, and she beamed.
She had me scan my driver’s license under a laser card reader and shortly thereafter the video terminal printed my contract. She told me where to go to get my car and with that I was off.
This was a terrific example of technology disrupting old ways of doing business. It’s easy to imagine a near future with a rental car counter staffed not by a dozen employees, but maybe by a single employee and a dozen of these terminals.
“This was a terrific example of technology disrupting old ways of doing business.” -Nick Schulz
The employees who help customers rent the car could be in Oklahoma City or some other faraway locale where labor costs are much lower (and, governors take note, in right-to-work states).
And those employees might rent cars to people in scores of different locations, in dozens of different time zones.
Phoenix has a polyglot population. And while I’m sure the Hertz at Sky Harbor airport hires employees who speak Spanish to service the state’s large Hispanic population, it doesn’t make economic sense to justify hiring employees who speak, say, Hmong, or Farsi, or French, or Chinese, even if they occasionally get customers with limited English who speak those languages.
But it’s easy to envision Hertz global hiring a few employees who speak other languages and have them service their clients worldwide using modern telecommunications technology.
It’s also easy to see other service industries adopting these technologies. Imagine checking into a hotel in New York at 3 a.m. but the desk clerk is in West Africa and it’s 8 a.m. her time.
Or imagine a consultation with a doctor who can see you, even look down your throat and get a sense of how you are doing, even print out a prescription for you, but he’s sitting halfway around the world.
Of course, companies have been locating call centers in areas of the country and the world where labor costs are low. The addition of real-time, high quality, two-way video technology opens up new vistas and will change the nature of work for many.
Far-sighted policymakers would be wise to consider the way in which an abundance of connectivity and bandwidth will change the nature of work and leisure for everyone. They would similarly be wise to stand aside to see where these exciting changes take us. The role for policy is to ensure that the incentives for innovation, experimentation, and – most importantly – risk capital and investment are as robust as possible.
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