December 25, 2005

What we have here is failure of telecommuting.

You'd think the transit strike in NYC would have caused office workers to work from home, but it didn't. Telecommuting was supposed to be a big trend, but it didn't happen, and the efforts people made to get to the office during the strike really say something:

Some hurdles to telecommuting have persisted for almost 20 years. Employers, for instance, like to keep an eye on employees. Employees often fear that rewards will accrue to those dedicated stars who show up at work most often, and certainly to those who, unlike the lazy, wily telecommuter, brave the elements even during a transit strike.

But daily journeys to and from work are more than just physical. For many workers they are necessary cognitive commutes.

"It's in some ways an incredibly functional period for people getting into a work frame of mind or a home frame of mind," said Christina Nippert-Eng, a professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

"For people who really make a big distinction between work or home, they really need a bridging routine," she said. "If they don't figure out how to do that, telecommuting won't work."


CrankyProfessor said...

I didn't learn to work at home until I set up a clearly defined work zone (I was too poor then for a study, but I've never been without one since I got a real job). Something about having to sit at a desk that WASN'T in my bedroom or living room made a difference.

Nowadays I seem to grade at the kitchen counter, though. Hmm.

Scott Ferguson said...

I live in New Jersey, but I'm telecommuting Tuesday through Friday at my elderly father's place in central Georgia. This gives me the opportunity to hang out with him for awhile, but not burn up my personal time. Besides, it can be a bit boring being with parents, so having something to do is great.

At our company, telecommuting is for special situations (spouse away and can't take care of the kid, Home Depot delivering a dishwasher, etc.) Ideally it should be scheduled in advance. We had a number of associates who were telecommuting full-time, but one by one they seem to have "left the company." It almost seems like a prelude to getting fired. I think people need to be in the mix in the office to convince others that their work has enough value-added to make it worth keeping you on the payroll.

Bruce Hayden said...

Currently, I am working out of my home. And, not surprisingly, I am not nearly as productive as I was when I went to the office every day - but I don't have to be because my overhead is so much lower.

I think my best commute was at the end of my marriage. We lived up in the mountains west of Denver, and I commuted south of downtown. We lived in heavy Ponderosa pine, and could see one house, and routinely had bear and mtn. lion through the yard. It took me under a half an hour to get to my office. It was two totally different lives. And because we were working staggered shifts to take care of our infant daughter, I was super efficient when I was at work.

But I just can't envision commuting longer than a half an hour each way. Never had to, and don't think I would ever take a job that would require that.

Ron said...

I wonder how much gas would be saved if people were to telecommute even just one day a week.

It is a different mindset to work at home; there it becomes much more about the work itself, I think, than all the socializing that goes on at work. I prefer this myself so that my socializing is really personal and not entangled with my work life. Plus, I've so gotten used to the idea of self-determination, not working to the immediate presence of a boss, that's hard to go back into the older mode of working (which, at times, people want me to do) which I now feel is condescending.

Dave said...

Well, I telecommuted during the strike and have not lost my job...

Barry said...

Telecommuting full-time is career suicide if you're a staff member in most firms, though it tends to work very well if you're an independent consultant who just needs to come in occasionally for meetings (I worked that way for over four years, quite happily.)

I now have a full-time staff gig, and telecommute about one week a month. I am actually more productive when working from home. You *do* need to be in the office for political and psychological reasons ("out of sight, out of mind") but telecommuting up to 50% of the time is, in my experience, very workable.

In this era of outsourcing and offshoring, when we're sending work all over the world, it's astounding that more employers won't accept the notion that people can occasionally work productively from home.

Simon Kenton said...

I've telecommuted 6 years from Colorado to California.

If you follow the Myers Briggs personality types, it helps to be an I if you are to telecommute longterm. Only about 25% of people draw energy from within themselves, rather than from others; the universe of contented telecommuters is probably mostly made up of them.

You will no longer get any promotions, though you will not necessarily lose your job. In fact, I have had 5 bosses in the 6 years. It's important to have bosses who are grownups, and who have too many people doing too much complex stuff to indulge their need to be on your back all the time. They need to be able to shrug and say, "Well, Simon gets the work done, and at least I don't have to think much about him."

You need a strong instinct for craft - getting the work done on time in budget at professional levels has to matter to you.

Some neuroses are less helpful than others. In particular, it is best not to be a serious procrastinator, nor to have fear and loathing for the telephone. The art of unmistakable emails is important, and you need either to stifle your attempts to be humorous or to make your email successfully and objectively funny. You need to cultivate and buff up professionals all over the world to work for you.

I don't think you can telecommute without personal financial goals you are simultaneously working toward. It pleases me both to know I am not spending $20,000 each year on clothes and cars; and to know that money is actually going where I design it to, and doing the work I have intended for it.

As Bruce implies, it is also nice to look up from the screen and watch a bear on the hillside behind the house; to see a rare melanistic Abert's squirrel in one of the ponderosas; to reach for an arrow or bolt with a razory broadhead when a buck comes by; and to think, "The time I'm about to spend taking this deer and assuring us food for the winter could have been spent trying desperately to look interested as some Cro-magnon wannabe at the watercooler re-tells me about the latest exploits of 'his' team, or some wistful bloatette tells me about the grapefruit diet that will effortlessly exhume the 18-year-old body encased within her current shape."

The operational hazard for telecommuters is paranoia. In fact, they _are_ talking about you nastily, though not as much or as meanly as you think. In fact, you _are_ more dispensable than your coworkers who are getting the face time. BFD - the days when bosses used the word "loyalty" without irony vanished 25 years ago; workers are kleenex. The people most disappointed by their work environment, whether telecommuting or conventional, are the ones who implicitly think their job will provide fulfillment, a salary, a social life, a mate, and riches. Conversely, If you take an AA perspective - just grateful to get another 2 weeks closer to my goals - the paranoia is not too damaging, nor is the eventual firing.

OddD said...

I swear I don't know what people are talking about half the time. Commuting necessary to get in a frame mind?

In those situations where I have commuted, I usually sat down to a blank screen with a blank mind. Then within a minute or two, I'd be up to speed. Often with a fresh perspective on things.

Every now and again I'd have a knotty problem that I'd "take home" with me, and I'd be working on it the whole evening, while I slept, and then in the morning.

But the idea that you need a commute to get in a "frame of mind" just strikes me as odd. It seems like, in an average day, you have to deal with different people, different problems, etc., and being able to change gears quickly is pretty critical.

Gigolo Kitty said...

The problem with working at home is that you cannot take coffee breaks, bath room breaks, water cooler conversation breaks...