Saturday, October 6, 2012

Workers of the world stay home

In 1994, with the help of America Online, my mother started telecommuting to work a few times a week. This was almost twenty years ago. The future was here!

I remember being 15 and thinking; “Too bad. Offices are about to become obsolete. All those commercial strip malls designed to serve commuters; the ones with poorly named delis and over-priced shoeshines…they’re about to disappear. How sad.”
(Why a teenager would be wistful about the death of watercooler chats and crap cafes that close at two might say something about the kind of daydreaming chump I was already becoming...)
I thought by now the whole concept of driving to work five days a week would be an artifact. I figured by now everyone would be driving to the office maybe once or twice a week and working from home the rest of the time. Well almost twenty years later most people still commute. Five days a week. Significant distances. To unnecessary office buildings.
We’ve gone to incredible lengths to make the car ride more fun; satellite radio, DVD players on the backs of the seats. But the fact of the car ride, the commute, remains the same.
Now in California (home of commuter dungeons like Los Angeles) they have legalized driverless cars. That’s right. They are getting rid of the inconvenience of the human hand on the steering wheel, but not the inconvenience of the human driving to work five days a week. We would rather create virtual chauffeurs than abandon the tradition of commuting to central offices.
It's not like commuting is cheap. Gas prices have gone up a lot since 1994. The price of oil has really dominated the headlines for the past seven years. And this had barely made a dent in the standard commuting routine.
And back when everyone was talking about climate change, what hogged the discussion? Green energy, clean energy. Not WORKING FROM HOME so you’re not constantly driving.

The focus on climate change sparked plenty of discussion about public transportation, but very little talk of not needing as much transportation. In 2012 does the subway still need be like a turkey farm each morning?
What else has changed the landscape since '94? Outsourcing. People making sales calls from India. People performing IT tasks for American companies from centers in Bangalore. We're comfortable with having sales teams in Bangalore. We're not ready for sales team working from US living rooms.
So what is going on here? Are humans just that stupid? Well yes, but I don’t believe that is the entire explanation.
Why are we still thinking inside the box? Why are employees still idling in cubicles and gathering in conference rooms? Well, when we hear about the glories of “thinking outside the box,” the inference is that everyone benefits equally when the box is bypassed. Not true. More often than not, Managers, Directors, CEOs, bosses, whatever rubric they carry, need the box to justify their existence (or at the very least their much larger salary).
Who makes the policy on working from home? Bosses do, and bosses need conference rooms to herd people into for unnecessary meetings. Bosses need everyone in that conference room looking attentive as they go through their latest list of impossible goals and unspecific ideas on achieving those impossible goals. If this same unnecessary discussion takes place through a conference call with everyone calling in from home, one person will be making the call while watching a Hoarders marathon. Another will be painting her toes. Another will be cleaning the cat box, and still another will be closing his sleepy eyes and grunting agreement when it appears necessary. Ultimately those employees will probably be just as productive, but in this scenario, the manager’s power is diminished. On a conference call where everyone is at home, no one is staring up at the boss in search of "direction." Without that hierarchical structure, the fact that he and his bosses get paid much more for contributing far less becomes easier to see (and prove). So allowing folks to work from home represents serious career risk for these diddling parasites. When people cease to be bamboozled by empty titles (and when clients stop being bamboozled by fancy offices), perhaps a major transition to large-scale telecommuting will finally take place.

One part of my 1994 prediction has come true. All over America, commercial property stands empty. In some parts of the country, LOTS of it stands empty. Not because of telecommuting; but because the economy is in such bad shape. It is enough to make you wistful.


Indoctrinated said...

While I'm in school for journalism, I commute to work in manufacturing.

It's pretty impossible to work a drill press from home.

Not everyone has a desk job.

randerson said...

Great article! The old "if I can't see you you're not working" attitude is really a poorly disguised "if you can't see me breathing down your neck I'm not relevant any more." For a growing percentage of office jobs, there is just no excuse for dragging people in through two hours of commuter traffic to sit in a windowless cubicle for 8+ hours doing stuff they could easily have done from home. People are getting tired of the bull. Time's up for middle-management.

Anonymous said...

“About 50% of the human race is middlemen and they don't take kindly to being eliminated.” Captain Malcolm Reynolds

Steve D said...

Remember all the horror stories about housewives in the Fifties going nuts because they were cooped up in the house 24/7? Why would you want the whole work force (including women) to live like that? I for one want a change of scenery at work.

Anonymous said...

While many jobs can be done remotely, not all can and it's much more effective to collaborate with people you see on a regular basis.
I've been working from home for over two years and there is a definite disconnect between me and my colleagues that commute everyday.