At home in the office

The idea of telecommuting has been kicking around for a good ten years, at least in practical form, but there’s still been no huge take-up in it. Granted, there are some industries where it is almost standard (which is just one of the reasons being a freelance writer appeals to me so much), but most businesses still seem alarmed by the idea. After all, how can you keep the b*ggers in line if they’re not in your sight?

FutureWire pointed me towards an article about a survey done over in the US that assesses the environmental impact that a move to telecommuting could have (basically, a whole lot less car journeys), as well as the other benefits (which would mostly be personal benefits for the employee, eg less stress, less wasted journey time, increased productivity and wellbeing etc.). Then yesterday I stumbled across another piece, this time on RedHerring, where a professor is opining that the telecommuter boom is on the horizon, as the ‘Myspace’ generation move into the employment market. The social, economic and environmental gains to be had are obvious.

So why hasn’t it really taken off already? It’s true to say the technology that permits it has been reasonably accessible for nearly a decade, but only now has the expense fallen to a low enough level for a practical roll-out. And only now are there the sort of tools that would allow an employer to keep decent watch on their workers – this isn’t a practice I’d necessarily agree works to their benefit, but it is observably the way they think. And therein lies the problem. As the RedHerring piece says, the generation moving into the labour market now would have little (or indeed no) resistance to the idea of working from home, but I think it will be some time before the average company is ready to take the plunge.

Corporate management styles have a context problem. It’s a catch-22 situation – they distrust their employees, so they treat them (at best) as potential liabilities; hence the employee becomes resentful at being labeled as such, and decides to get away with whatever they can as a form of ‘quiet rebellion’. Some companies are worse than others of course, but even to a layman like myself, the semantic root of the problem can be seen in corporate structure charts. I’m sure many of you work somewhere that has a ‘Human Resources’ department. Look at the wording of that. People as a resource – and what is the verb that describes the use of resources? To exploit. The use of the word ‘human’ does nothing to humanise the organisational attitude at work here; employees represent man-hours of work, not individuals with needs and emotions. Add to this cube-farm offices, bans and restrictions on internet access and phone usage, dress codes…the military mindset is pervasive anywhere command and control is the order of the day.

It is this attitude that prevents telecommuting to really pick up speed, despite the fact that a growing number of jobs would be ideally suited to it. Callcentres, for example, would be ideal candidates, but I would imagine they will be the last to get on board – according to the people I know who work (or have worked) in callcentres, they are some of the most authoritarian employers there are. The managers will be worried that work will not be done, that targets will not be met.

Leaving aside the utility of target-based job systems (which there are numerous ways to fiddle, and which end up having the opposite effect on customer service that that which they are supposed to), there seems to be a flaw in logic here. After all, what do you do if an office employee consistently doesn’t meet targets? You lay them off, of course. So why should you need to do things any differently with employees working at home? It would soon become obvious which ones weren’t pulling their weight and slacking off, so after a certain number of warnings, their employment would be terminated. Easy as that. The feedback mechanisms to keep track of their work are all available; the employer saves a huge amount of overhead, and will (after an initial winnowing process) have happier and more productive employees than the office-based system can produce. This also opens up the prospect of part-time employment to a number of people who would otherwise not be able to work; mothers with young children, the physically disabled and so on.

I think the eventual take-up of telecommuting is fairly inevitable, but it will take some time for old attitudes to be broken down sufficiently to allow full penetration into all the current job types that could benefit from it. However, the real change will start coming through as jobs that are inevitably telecommuter-based come online (pun intended) – namely the jobs that will start to proliferate in virtual worlds like Second Life. I have discussed the prospects for job creation in these realities before: virtual shops will require virtual attendants (because scripted avatars will inevitably be hacked); the virtual construction industries will expand hugely, allowing people to become entrepreneurs from the comfort of their computer-desk at home; content creators of all types will be able to market their work more effectively and exploit the ‘long tail’ phenomenon to their benefit. Once the meatspace businesses see what effect this can have on profit margins, they will begin to understand the wisdom of following suit.

And then we will start to see gridlocked motorways loosening, rush-hour smog clouds thinning, work-related stress disorders becoming less prevalent, fuel and energy consumption figures falling. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen too late to do any good.

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