As a full time teleworker, I have been bemused by the widespread and unusual attention in the general news media this week about telecommuting. See, for example, the front page story, “Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office” in the New York Times this week (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/technology/yahoo-orders-home-workers-back-to-the-office.html) or “Does Telecommuting Hurt Your Career” from CBS Money Watch yesterday (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-500395_162-57571587/does-telecommuting-hurt-your-career/)
Yahoo has its own peculiar problems to address that don’t necessarily apply to other companies. The news reports about Yahoo would seem to indicate they did not understand that telecommuting is not just about the technology making it possible, but is part of a larger transformation of management and employee behavior. It’s no wonder they feel it hasn’t worked out so well for them.
This provided an opportunity for the usually hidden critics of telecommuting to come out of the woodwork. It reminded me of the “I-told-you-so” crowd in the print newspaper business a dozen years ago – when the dot.com bust occurred and they thought the threat of the Internet was vanquished.
There has been much pushback from advocates of telecommuting. They like it for the work/life balance, the reduced greenhouse gases, a less draining commute to work, the sense of autonomy, among other reasons. And, despite early concerns to the contrary, the evidence seems to point to increases in productivity on the part of telecommuters.
So, some recent critics of telecommuting are offering a more balanced critique, which has quickly become the conventional wisdom of the day. They say that telecommuting does indeed increase productivity, but it isn’t any good for innovation – which, of course, we know is the key to 21st century prosperity. The message: if you want to succeed at high-level jobs you’ll have to go back to the 9-to-5 office routine.
See, for example, the discussion yesterday on Public Radio’s The TakeAway – http://www.thetakeaway.org/2013/feb/27/pros-and-cons-telecommuting/ .
Perhaps the argument about innovation is just the latest excuse. First, let’s not forget that an office often breeds “group think” too and its social pressures can severely dampen innovation. Innovation occurs when people are exposed to different currents of ideas outside of their usual environment. The global connectivity that the Internet offers is more likely to enable that kind of creative leap than just showing up at an office and talking to people who likely have the same background and mindset as you do.
Second, we need to recognize the fact that the Internet is actually quite immature. If you think about what we do with telephones today, then, by comparison, the Internet today may be at a stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920. People then had only a cloudy vision of the various ways that phones would be used and incorporated into everyday lives.
It will take more time – perhaps ten years or more – before we have the software, cultural habits, incentives, ubiquity and all the other factors lined up to enable the collaboration and creative serendipity that can occur when people are physically face-to-face. (I suppose we ought to replace the phrase “face-to-face” with something like “touching distance” since I can be face-to-face in a videoconference 😉
Are we there yet? No, but does that mean we reverse course, instead of further developing the Internet and moving to a better virtual future? Of course not.
What do you think?
© 2013 Norman Jacknis