HOW TELECOMMUTING CHANGES RELATIONSHIPS TO HOME AND PEOPLE
Errol C. Isenberg
Writing Workshop II
Professor Julia Keefer
May 4, 2001
HOW TELECOMMUTING CHANGES RELATIONSHIPS TO HOME AND PEOPLE
Throughout Western society, at least since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, much of society has been organized around the concept of work. Some of these work-related organizational aspects of society have included what kind of work people would do, where people would work, how people would get to their work, where they would live in order to facilitate their work, and what kind of self-identity people would develop through their work. With the continuing development of more and more powerful computers, as well as advances in telecommunication equipment, it is becoming increasingly technically feasible, at least, for people in certain kinds of work to do some, or even all, of their work from home in other words, to telecommute. The subject choice for my research is somewhat prompted by my own personal experience of being a part-time (two or three days per week) telecommuter for the past year. Since March of 2000 the company I work for, Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC), has been conducting a telecommuting pilot project with a limited number of people from the Information Technology (IT) department. My research paper deals with the implementation and practice of telecommuting in 2001 in the New York City metropolitan area. I will be exploring the effects of telecommuting on mid-level, or higher, employees, who are primarily working in information technology or some other technical field. What are the positive and negative aspects of telecommuting on the relationships that people have with their homes, with the other people within those homes, and with themselves in terms of their self-identity? I will also discuss the corporate viewpoint on telecommuting. Taking into account the positive and negative consequences of telecommuting, I will ask the question "Is telecommuting a viable form of social organization?"
This is a relevant issue because an increasing number of large corporations are offering, or in some cases even requiring, telecommuting for a certain portion of their employee population. The issue is of interest because many of us, as potential employees of these corporations, or maybe as entrepreneurs who will start our own corporations, are insisting that telecommuting be offered as a work option, and every day more of us have the possibility of telecommuting in our future.
Self-identity is an important concept to this issue because in psychology ones continual sense of self is based on ones personal attributes and the external relationships that one identifies as defining. Hegel located human identity in social activity, concluding that our consciousness of self arises from our interaction with others, and this interaction will at times be competitive, while at other times it will be collaborative. Obviously, when we are going to work, our work environment will influence many of these interactions, and if we are working from home, our interactions with others will be impacted dramatically. The social basis of personal identity is determined by common links of identification within groups. These common links are defined and bolstered by making contrasts with those who are perceived to be of a different group. If one is not a member of any work group because one is working from home, where are these common links going to come from? They will have to come from someplace other than ones work situation. Erickson said that confusion between social and professional roles may cause an identity crisis. I would ask how would the distinction between the social and professional aspects of the human being be maintained when one is working from home, and will telecommuting make it more difficult to differentiate between these roles, thereby causing more identity crises among those who telecommute? My own opinion is that ones self-identity is, to a large extent, determined by the things in life that one is passionate about. If you are telecommuting, will you be able to experience and express your passions adequately enough to preserve your sense of self-identity?
To a large extent, at least in the United States in 2001, a persons worth to society is determined by the market value of their labor. This market value is generally derived from exposing a persons particular set of skills to the visible public marketplace. The possibility of telecommuting raises the question of how society will evaluate a persons worth when that person does not put their set of skills on sale in the marketplace. Can society learn to evaluate a persons worth based on something other than the market value of their labor and what would that other something be?
In order to determine the behavioral, psychological, and sociological consequences of telecommuting, as related to home, family life, and self-identity, we need to look at the behavior of people before and after they started telecommuting. It will also be helpful to explore the perceived motivations that people have for wanting to telecommute. My research into these questions will include talking to people who are telecommuting, some part-time and some full-time, and to corporate advocates of telecommuting programs. All of the people I interviewed for this project have non-executive positions. This results in all my respondents having a similar upper middle-class socioeconomic status (probably in the $55,000 - $100,000 annual salary range). Because telecommuting so far tends to be offered to people who have relatively long commuting times, all my respondents also live in outlying suburbs of New York City. The people I spoke to range in age from their early 40s to their late 50s, so my study will not reflect the attitudes of young people towards telecommuting. The gender split here is approximately 75% male and 25% female. The interviewees have a variety of nationalities, including American, Asian Indian, Chinese, Irish, and Russian. All in all, the socioeconomic, geographic, chronological, and gender components of the demographic base for this study are rather narrow in scope. Unfortunately, this is a major flaw and will tend to make any conclusions based on this survey rather limited in scope. I will attempt to talk to some corporate detractors of telecommuting programs, in other words, to people who have the power to veto the implementation of such programs, and who have used that veto power. I will also access magazine articles, web sites, and books on telecommuting.
Telecommuting is defined by Websters New World Dictionary as "using a computer terminal, microcomputer, fax, etc. to perform work in ones home that traditionally has been done in the office." A mid-level employee is defined as anyone above an entry-level position or one rank above entry-level on the corporate hierarchy. A technical position would refer to a position where the job duties, to a significant extent, involve dealing with data or machines, and not human beings.
Why are corporations, such as DTCC, willing to offer some of their employees the option of telecommuting? Many of the highly telecommuting-friendly jobs especially in the IT field are quite difficult to fill. Due to a shortage of technically trained personnel, the search for top-quality employees in technology is increasingly tough and likely to continue that way. One contributing factor to this shortage is that universities teach a lot of theory in computer science courses, and not necessarily a significant amount of vocationally useful knowledge. Many skilled IT personnel are, to a large degree, relatively self-taught in their professional disciplines. These self-taught individuals might be more willing than the average person to work outside a traditionally centralized corporate structure. Strategic approaches to recruitment and retention of such personnel can include the smart, appropriate use of telecommuting. (Gil Gordon Associates 2-3)
The United States unemployment rate is about 4.2% in March of 2001 close to a 30-year low. Staffing shortages can adversely impact a corporation in the following ways: employee productivity is reduced by 43%, profitability is decreased by 35%, sales revenue drops by 28%, employee turnover increases by 27%, and introduction of new products and services is reduced by 23%. These statistics represent one of the most compelling arguments in favor of telecommuting and other flexible work options that allow employers to tap into a hidden labor market. An open job means not only that a certain amount of work remains undone, but also that there are undesirable ripple effects as mentioned above. Employers who are still reluctant to consider alternative staffing options should think twice about their desire to cling to the 9-to-5, "everyone in the office" view of the workplace; those open jobs are probably causing more problems, and costing more money, than is realized. (Gil Gordon Associates, 5-6)
MOTIVATIONS FOR TELECOMMUTING
One of the most frequently cited motivations for telecommuting by people who wish to telecommute is the opportunity to alleviate some of the hassles that are created by commuting to work on a daily basis. Regardless of where we live or what mode of transportation we use to get to work, it seems that, almost without exception, people find their commute to work to be an extremely annoying aspect of their lives. If we live in a densely populated urban area we frequently have to take overcrowded, uncomfortable, somewhat unreliable, and sometimes dirty buses or trains to get to work. If we live in a less densely populated suburban or rural area we commonly have to drive to work through massive traffic jams over poorly maintained roads and then park in expensive parking lots. Not too many people find either alternative particularly appealing. The only people I am aware of who actually enjoy their commute are people who live close enough to their work to be able to walk there, or who can drive for a maximum of 20 minutes to get to work and then park cheaply in a corporate parking lot. In the corporations that I am using in my research (large corporations in the New York City area) the two situations described above do not happen very often. This is primarily due to the fact that, for the most part, the people who work for these corporations, unless they are in upper management or above, have to live quite far from New York City in order to find desirable and semi-affordable housing.
I am aware of many people in New York City that routinely have round-trip commuting times as long as three or four hours daily. For example, Mr. Nahata has to drive 10 minutes to his park and ride facility in New Jersey, take a 90-minute bus ride to Manhattan, and then walk 10 minutes to get to his office. (Nahata interview) I used to have to do the same thing, and was thrilled when my commute changed to one hour each way (two hours daily round trip) after I moved. In fact, a significant reason for my move was to take advantage of the more rapid, albeit much more expensive, mode of transportation (which changed from a bus to a high-speed ferry). Please note that these commuting times mentioned here are under normal circumstances, where traffic is flowing smoothly and not backed up due to accidents or unusual congestion. If anything abnormal happens during the commute then these travelling times would become longer, as if they are not bad enough already.
The financial aspect of travelling to and from work is frequently regarded as an undesirable part of commuting, and motivates some people to find an alternative to commuting. There are several components to the financial aspect. These include the actual cost of the ticket on the mode of transport (if it is a form of public transportation), the maintenance costs of using ones own vehicle (including tolls, gasoline, and parking fees), the costs of obtaining nourishment while at the place of employment, and the costs of maintaining a suitable wardrobe for ones working environment. In my case, the minimum daily expense of commuting via public transportation is $11.00 per day (when I take the bus from New Jersey to New York City) and the maximum daily expense is approximately $28.00 (when I buy a daily round-trip ferry ticket). These numbers do not take into account any additional expenses that would be incurred as a result of working in New York City instead of working from home. Anne Gorenstein of Unisys Corp. estimates the she saves $4,604 per year by telecommuting full-time. This includes $1,404 on the use of her car (estimated at 32.5 cents per mile for her previous 90 miles of driving to and from work each week), $2,000 on work clothing and dry cleaning, and $1,200 on lunches (which cost $2 at home and $7 at work). This would, incidentally, be after-tax income, so that if one is paying approximately 50% of ones income in taxes (between federal, state, local, social security, etc.) one would have to earn $9,208 in pre-tax income to have an extra $4,604 of spending money. This would indicate that Ms. Gorenstein has given herself a pre-tax salary increase of $176.59 per week by being a fulltime telecommuter. Cheryl Gochnauer estimates that, by no longer working outside the home, she saves $1,500 from her familys monthly expenses. Ms. Gochnauer contends that many mothers are practically paying their employers to let them work. One day, she sat down and determined that she had been "cranking out a regular 40-hour week" and earning less than a dollar an hour. Ms. Gochnauer said "In my case, my supposedly crucial contribution to our two-income budget amounted to a pittance, after I considered all the costs necessary to support my working habit."
As long as people are living in one place and working in another, it is difficult to be optimistic about the possibility of commuting being made less onerous anytime in the foreseeable future. Much time and money has been spent in recent years to promote alternatives, such as car-pooling or public transportation, to driving alone to work. In some cases, employers have been required to implement programs to reduce the number of trips that their employees make in order to get to work. For example, Southern California employers were required by Regulation XV (1990) and its successor regulations to implement trip reduction programs for their employees, but drive-alone, carpool, and mass transit rates have remained remarkably constant throughout the period of the regulation and thereafter. In 1990 the rates were 78.2%, 14.8%, and 4.3% respectively. In 1998 the rates were 77.3%, 15.5%, and 4.1%. These numbers come from Southern California only, but that is one reason why they are so discouraging. There are very few regions that have spent as much time and money as Southern California to promote travel alternatives so if we do not see any change in the numbers here, where else would we expect to see them? (Gil Gordon Associates 12)
At a recent conference titled "Moving Into the Future: Surface Transportation in the 21st Century" Anthony Downs of the Brooking Institution, who has been a keen observer of urban affairs, including transportation, for many years, gave an address, some of the highlights of which follow.
"Privately owned vehicles will remain the dominant form of ground transportation for the foreseeable future in the United States. Attempts to cope with rising traffic congestion by shifting more people to public transit are not going to work. The automobile is, and will remain, a better form of movement for most people in spite of congestion. Its faster, safer, more comfortable, more flexible in timing and in linking scattered origins and destinations, and often cheaper, especially if you get free parking." (Gil Gordon Associates 14)
"The only way to substantially increase the percentage of trips made on public transit would be to make the use of automotive vehicles far less convenient or far more costly such as by quadrupling the cost of gasoline or placing heavy taxes on automobiles But these steps will be so strongly opposed by a majority of Americans that there is absolutely zero chance that they will happen. The most important thing to understand about traffic congestion is that it is a problem that cannot be solved. There is no remedy for traffic congestion because traffic congestion is essentially a balancing mechanism that enables people to pursue six objectives other than minimizing their commuting time." (Gil Gordon Associates 15)
The six objectives are:
Downs asserts that traffic congestion will not only not decline but will probably increase
in the future, around the world, because it is a result of our pursuit of other objectives which we dont want to give up. "Some improvements can be made but they will only be marginal. They will likely be swamped by rising metropolitan households and the use of multiple vehicles by more households." He says that congestion isnt going away and that we should "learn to like it. Get yourself an air-conditioned car with a stereo radio, a tape deck, a portable computer, a television set, a microwave, and commute with somebody youre really attracted to. Regard commuting as part of your leisure time. You might as well learn to enjoy it." (Gil Gordon Associates 17)
All these problems with commuting and the unlikely possibility of commuting being made less onerous combine to make the idea of telecommuting more and more attractive.
BEHAVIORAL CHANGES INFLUENCED BY TELECOMMUTING
If telecommuting can enable the people who are working via that method to save all this time and money, as described in the previous section, what will they do with those additional resources? How will their relationships with themselves, their homes, and the other people within those homes be affected, both positively and negatively?
In DTCC, the organization that I am most familiar with, there are now about 100 telecommuters in the Information Technology Department out of a departmental staff of about 700 people. The corporation employs about 4,000 people in total, but all the telecommuters, at least for now, work in Information Technology. The employees who are telecommuting are doing so an average of three days per week (this is a company requirement). There were several conditions that had to be met before one could be eligible for the telecommuting program; the most salient condition for this study is that the employee had to have a round-trip commute time of greater than two hours. Therefore, all of the telecommuters at DTCC are saving more than six hours per week in commuting time and three days of commuting-related expenses per week.
The most common description of the daily weekday routines of my professional colleagues before they started telecommuting would be as follows: wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, work, go home, eat dinner, watch television for about two hours, and go to bed. This obviously does not leave a great deal of time for doing anything at all of a personal nature outside this daily routine during the five-day Monday-to-Friday workweek. When the occasional, and inevitable, situation that would have to be dealt with would come up the one thing that would be sacrificed would most likely be ones sleep time. As a result, whenever anything out of the ordinary would happen, the person experiencing that event would tend to be overly tired and somewhat less productive than normal, at least for the next day, if not longer. These weekday time constraints would also require that most normal household and personal chores, such as laundry, housework, car maintenance, etc. would have to be performed on the weekend, which does not leave a great deal of leisure time on the weekend.
If these employees, because they spend so little time dealing with items of a personal nature, have most of their interaction with others in a corporate environment, then their human identity and consciousness of self, as defined by Hegel, would primarily be derived from their corporate situation. Jeremy Rifkin concludes that a persons worth is determined by the market value of his or her labor. The corporations that might use the persons labor will usually determine the market value of the labor. (Rifkin xviii) If Rifkin is, in fact, correct, and if the common links of identification usually come from the corporate role, then it stands to reason that a persons sense of self, or self-identity, would be largely determined by how that person relates to the corporate structure. Due to the way our society is presently constructed, if a person does not derive the sense of self via the interaction with the corporate structure, that person will probably have a greater likelihood of a rather marginal economic existence. Many people would find such a position too precarious for comfort, and so they would feel compelled to buy into the corporate domination of society.
In my previous job as a computer programmer at New York Life Insurance Company, I was very ambitious, put in a great deal of overtime, loved my boss and the team I was a member of, and derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from my employment there. Much of my personal identity at that time came from the association I had with New York Life. A related factor here, perhaps, is that in the entire time I was employed by New York Life, which was a period of four years, I was not involved in a serious romantic relationship. Attempts were made to develop such relationships during those four years, but were spectacularly unsuccessful. An interesting sidelight here is that all those attempts were made with women who worked at New York Life. In any event, I took great pride in my association with the company. When someone would say to me "What do you do for a living?" the response would always be "I work for New York Life Insurance Company." The assumption would usually then be made that I sold insurance, so the person who asked the question would then try to see if they could get a good break on a life insurance policy from me, but I would have to quickly dissuade them of that notion. I would then identify myself as a computer programmer who never dealt professionally with an outside customer, but only with other people inside the company. I remember some of my friends reacting to this by saying "So it is like you are in an ivory tower somewhere writing your computer programs and never dealing with the real world outside." To be quite honest, it sometimes did feel that way to me.
However, not everyone who worked for New York Life felt so enthusiastic about the employer-employee relationship. When hired as an entry-level computer programmer by the company, I was put in an in-house training program with a group of 11 other entry-level programmers. Five members of this group of 12 came from other positions in New York Life and were making career changes, six members were just out of college with bachelors degrees, and one member (myself) was making a career change from outside New York Life. When we finished the in-house training program I ended up working in the same area as two or three of the recent college graduates. We would frequently go out to lunch together and I sometimes wore my company ID in plain sight around my neck. I remember the younger programmers saying "Errol, will you please take off your badge. People dont have to know that we work for New York Life." It was as if it was not cool for people in the early- or mid-twenties to be employed by such a conservative entity as an old-line insurance company. The fact that these people were computer programmers, which is traditionally thought of as a profession for "nerdy guys with pocket protectors," probably made it even less cool. However, that did not bother me at all. I was quite proud of the fact that New York Life saw fit to employ me as a computer programmer. I even enjoyed being a nerd, and was quite excited when I finally found a supply of pocket protectors at Staples. However, a woman I was dating at the time did not find it quite so amusing when I showed up for dinner one evening with a pocket protector on my shirt. I remember this woman saying to me one time, "I find it extremely annoying that you think it is cute being a nerd." That was not why we stopped seeing each other, but it might have been a factor in the breakup of the relationship.
One of the most desirable aspects of telecommuting, according to the people I am speaking with, is that it allows them to separate themselves from their corporate identity to some extent. This way, they can have a personal identity, as well as a corporate identity. For example, Michael Giovia, who is a group manager for Novell, Inc., used to have to drive 60 miles to and from work whenever he worked in his New Jersey office. In addition to this very long drive twice a day, he frequently had to travel all over the United States to meet other people in his group. He has been a fulltime telecommuter for three years now. He performs both his own office work, as well as most of his group management work, remotely from his home. Mr. Giovia has three children, 9-, 12-, and 17-year old girls. His drive to and from work meant that he would leave in the morning before his daughters would get up and he would return from work completely exhausted by his workday and his long, arduous drive. By the time he would get home from work his two younger daughters would already have eaten dinner and would be getting ready for bed. His oldest daughter would still be awake, but he would be too tired to do anything with her. When Mr. Giovia would have to travel out of state, then he would not see his family for a number of days at a time, as his business trips would usually last two to four days. Now that he telecommutes fulltime, he says that he is involved in his daughters lives every day; if they have some activity they want to share with him he is available for that activity. If the activity requires him to be away from his work computer for a number of hours when he would normally be working, he makes up the time later. Mrs. Giovia, however, is not quite as enamored of the new work arrangement as her husband is. She was very used to, and quite comfortable with, the idea of having the household all to herself and running it the way she thought was best without any input from her husband. Now that he is around all the time, she has had to adjust her domestic engineering ideas to account for his presence. For example, there might have been times when she would like to have had some noisy or dirty cleaning or construction work done in, or around, the house. When her husband used to go to the office to work, or travel on business, she could have such work done whenever it suited her. Now that Mr. Giovia is working at home full time, his work needs take precedence over the requirements of running the household, according to both Mr. and Mrs. Giovia. (Giovia interview)
For myself, the present job with DTCC provides much less sense of self-identity than the previous job with New York Life. Even though I had a very strong identification with New York Life, I felt it necessary to leave that job for professional advancement possibilities. If I had stayed there I would have been pigeonholed into an area I was very good in, but which would not have afforded much opportunity for technical career advancement. Some of my sense of self now comes from my occupation and some of it comes from my avocations. When someone asks me what I do for a living, I say that I am a computer programmer. Sometimes people will then ask me who my employer is. That would be the point where DTCC would become a minor part of my self-identification portrait, and would be qualified by the statement that "you probably never heard of this company because we do not deal with the general public at all." Now that I have been telecommuting three days a week for a year, the corporate role is probably even less prominent in my sense of self than before the telecommuting started. I would say that I derive most of my sense of self-identity from my avocations which, at least for now, happen to be running and playing tennis. The primary reason I work is so that I can afford to pursue those avocations. If asked to characterize myself, I would say that I am a runner and a tennis player. One of the major goals I have is to be an example of someone who becomes, and stays, extremely healthy and physically fit into his middle age and beyond. The avocations mentioned earlier, along with supplemental exercises, would be the vehicles of choice for maintaining that physical fitness. A secondary goal would be greater recognition as an accomplished computer programmer, which would not necessarily be done for any established corporate entity, but perhaps even for myself as a self-employed individual. The reason why this would be a secondary goal, even though I might not derive a significant aspect of my self-identity from it, would be that the presumably greater financial remuneration would give me more options to pursue what I perceive as the primary sources of my sense of self-identity.
One interesting aspect of telecommuting my interviewees have mentioned is that before they were telecommuting they tended to spend a great deal more of their non-working time in their homes. Since they started telecommuting they tend to want to get out of the house as much as possible, because they are spending so much more time in the house now then when they were working fulltime in the corporate office. This desire to want to get out of the house more frequently does seem to lend itself to greater capacity for creating a sense of self in ways other than through the corporate identity. Some telecommuters are even willing to make what would appear to be, on the surface at least, some financial sacrifice in order to have more venues for establishing a self-identity. Suzanne Dowling, a Web technology editor for 3Com Corp., had been commuting two hours a day, five days a week. This meant spending 520 hours a year in transit for work the equivalent of 65 work days, or three work months, a year. Ms. Dowling wanted more balance in her life to work less and live more. "To me, it is too much of a sacrifice to spend two hours a day commuting," she says. "Its all a question of cost/benefit. Do I want less money for what I perceive to be a better quality of life?" Dowling decided that she did not want to spend her free time in her car. She took a cut in pay to work fewer hours from 40 to 30 hours per week and to telework three to four times a week from her home. "For me, its not consuming more, but enjoying more," she says. "It allows me to enjoy things like yoga, walking on the beach and having time outdoors with my dog those things that two extra hours a day can give you, things that dont necessarily cost any money."
This desire to get out of the house as much as possible, however, is somewhat different for my single and married respondents. My single respondents emphasized the necessity of warding off feelings of social isolation, so they highlighted the need to try to do something to get out of the house every day when they are telecommuting. They mentioned that they try to have breakfast or lunch outside every day, or have some commercial interaction with some kind of service person, such as at the post office or the copy store. Other single respondents pointed out that they ward off feelings of isolation engendered by telecommuting by using the time they save to take an extra class at the gym. The married people I spoke to said that normally they are under so much time pressure to do things with the family that social activities are crammed into a very tight schedule, are always very rushed, and extremely hectic. Since they normally have so little time, they try to make the most of whatever time they do have by being extremely tightly booked with their so-called leisure activities. One of the effects of telecommuting for these people is that they are home now during the day, so they can be with the family and share in family activities. This reduces the pressure on them to cram all the daily social activities into a very narrow window of a couple of hours in the evening after work and school. All of the married people I spoke to considered this a great positive benefit of telecommuting. They mentioned that before telecommuting they would sacrifice sleep to do things with the family. They did point out, however, that there are times when they are taking some time out from their work activities in order to spend some time with other family members, but then have to say "All right, that is enough for now. I have to go back to work." Mr. Trezzas 18-year-old daughter, for example, found out the other day that she was accepted at Temple University. Mr. Trezza was telecommuting that day, so the entire family was able to gather in his home office to celebrate his daughters acceptance. However, Mr. Trezza had to say to his family, after 30 minutes of celebrating with them and talking about the future with his daughter, "everybody has to leave my office now because I have to get back to work." Some people might interpret this as being cold and impersonal behavior by the telecommuter towards the family, but as Mr. Trezza pointed out, if he had been working in a regular office, he would not have been there at all to share in his daughters good fortune at the time that she received notification of her acceptance. (Trezza interview)
Some of my respondents have pointed out what they consider to be one of the least desirable aspects of telecommuting. If you wish to telecommute, you must be extremely focused, be very well disciplined, and have an ability to work responsibly on your own without close supervision. If the telecommuter does not have these traits, and there are probably a lot of people who do not, then there will be a tendency on the part of the telecommuter to not want to do any work, or as little work as possible, while telecommuting. Some telecommuters express the feeling that they completely forget about any common identifying links with their corporate environment, and derive the social basis of their personal identity entirely from the things they do, or the people they interact with, in their personal lives. While this might sound like a pretty good arrangement to a great many people, do little or no work and get paid for it, your productivity will almost certainly drop to almost zero if you indulge yourself with such behavior. Having very low productivity is probably not a situation that will be tolerated for a very long time by the corporate entity employing the telecommuter. A related danger here, for part-time telecommuters, is that non-productive behavior while telecommuting may, and sometimes does, carry over into the telecommuters behavior when they go back into the office. If you are a telecommuter, whether fulltime or part-time, and your productive output drops precipitously due to such behavior, you will be fortunate if your management says that you can no longer telecommute, but have to come back to working fulltime in the office under closer supervision. If you are unfortunate, then there is a good possibility that your employer will fire you.
A few of my respondents commented on feelings of isolation engendered by telecommuting. Both Mr. Nahata and Mr. Khan, who are DTCC telecommuters like myself, that are working from home three days a week, mentioned that they feel professionally isolated and out of the corporate loop when they work from home that frequently. They feel that they are ignored by the corporation, and to some extent by some of their colleagues, when they only show up in the office two days a week. As a result they have both decided to telecommute only two days a week, and come into the office three days a week, even though the parameters of the DTCC telecommuting program call for working from home at least 50% of the time. (Khan interview, Nahata interview) I do not share their feelings of isolation. I feel that I get enough corporate recognition and enough interaction with my colleagues, both personally and professionally, when I am in the office two days a week. I have built up enough of a relationship with my colleagues over the past three years that we can have maintain significant relationships only seeing each other twice a week. It is even conceivable that when we see each other twice a week, my colleagues and I have more significant interactions than we would when seeing each other every day. Since the time together is so concentrated, we do not have time to have trivial interactions with each other. I realize, however, that human relationships are built on a foundation of many minor interactions, as well as a few major ones. Missing out on these numerous minor interactions probably will make it more difficult to develop meaningful relationships with co-workers.
Mr. Nahata and Mr. Khan are Asian Indian. They both pointed out that they come from very large families and extremely congested communities where there is an incredible amount of group-based activities and socialization. They emphasized that they feel very uncomfortable when they have do things in isolation. (Khan interview, Nahata interview) Many Americans, on the other hand, do not feel uncomfortable when they have to do things by themselves. In fact, as Kunstler points out, "a constant point in American history has been the individual dwelling place in the natural landscape. The lone settlement in the woods was not a myth but an established fact, reenacted a million times by a million people. One can hardly conceive of a system more conducive to an extreme form of individualism and less supportive of any notion of the common good. The idea of a modest dwelling all our own, isolated from the problems of other people, has been our reigning metaphor of the good life for a long time." (Kunstler, 1998)
All of the telecommuters I interviewed said that they have set up a specific place in their home from which they do their work. Some of them have set up a separate room in which to work from home, while the others have set aside a section of a larger room. The split is about 50-50 between a separate room and a section of a room. With one exception, everyone has reserved that area exclusively for work. This might reflect that all my interviewees live in the suburbs of New Jersey, so they tend to have much more square footage in their houses or apartments then do residents of New York City. This might also be related to the fact that these people tend to be further along in their careers and lives then normal, so they are for the most part not living in their starter homes at this point. The comment was made to me that you cannot work at home in an office you do not feel comfortable in, so you want the working environment in the home to be pleasant and nice. One person mentioned that he and his wife decided that he should have an expensive oak desk with a nice credenza with cut glass and expensive solid oak bookcases. They realized that they were spending too much money, but they viewed it as a one-time investment that would help the husband enhance his productivity while telecommuting. Since they both want the husband to continue telecommuting, they thought the investment was worth their while. (Giovia interview) Another person mentioned that, as a result of telecommuting, he tends to know more about his house and the things that need to be done in and around the house. When he was in his corporate office for twelve hours he would not think about the house and its needs. This would cause maintenance tasks to frequently get deferred for several months. Now that he is home all the time, these maintenance tasks have a much more significant place in his consciousness and get acted on with much more immediacy. (Trezza interview)
CORPORATE PERSPECTIVES ON TELECOMMUTING
The corporate attitude towards telecommuting appears to be slowly changing. Until recently, perhaps about two years ago, the general perception was that if you were telecommuting you were goofing off at home or on the golf course. The people I spoke to said that they felt that both their managers and their colleagues had this perception. Some corporations, at least, now recognize that telecommuters can do significant work. Novell Corp., for example, does not seem to have a problem with telecommuting, since it recognized Mr. Giovia as one of the "Employees of the Year" in 2000, which is an honor bestowed annually on five of Novells employees out of a work force of approximately 4,000 people. Mr. Giovia manages a team of four people, three of whom are full-time telecommuters like himself. The fourth person goes into the office in Provo, Utah, one or two days a week, but this is only because he lives 15 minutes away from the office. Mr. Giovia mentioned that the first two years he was telecommuting, he would feel guilty whenever he would be away from his home office during the day, even though he would overcompensate for the time he was away when he got back to work. He said that in the first year he was away from the office three times during the day, and two of those times were to socialize with customers, which means that he was certainly working. Even so, he still felt guilty about being out of the home office. He no longer feels that way, because he believes that the company is certainly getting its moneys worth out of him. He gave me an example of his brother-in-law calling him up one nice spring day a couple of weeks ago, and suggesting that they go play golf. They did, and Mr. Giovia was out of the office from 10 AM 2 PM, although he was accessible via cell phone and pager. However, he was working at his desk from 7 AM 9:30 AM, and again from 2:30 PM 8:45 PM, so he put in a workday of 8 hours, 45 minutes, and was still accessible for the five hours in between. Based on the honor bestowed on him by Novell, I would say that he is correct in his belief that the company is getting good value for his salary. (Giovia interview)
In my personal situation, I am aware of some managers at DTCC who have no problem with the idea of telecommuting, and my own manager is one of those. However, I am also aware of some managers who believe that anyone who wishes to telecommute is basically deadwood who has no further goals for professional advancement, no concern for achieving corporate goals, and who is just hanging on till retirement. Obviously, if your manager feels this way, you would have to think carefully about the idea of wanting to telecommute if you take your career seriously.
Some corporate executives believe that you can only have a limited number of people in the firm telecommuting. Mr. Finn Caspersen is the CEO of Beneficial Corporation, which is headquartered in the town of Peapack in suburban New Jersey. Mr. Caspersen is thinking of moving his computer programmers out of the headquarters location to an area where there is more affordable housing. He said "Were talking average salary, $60,000. They are college educated and have skills that you and I dont. And these are highly transferrable skills, so you really want to keep them happy. If they have a long commute that they dont like, then you need to find a place with a comparative advantage." Mr. Caspersen thinks the answer may be to locate the programming staff further west along Interstate 78, or in Pennsylvania, or even in the Dallas, Texas area. He is looking at any location with lots of cheap housing and office space. "You can set up your programmers really anyplace," he said. (Garreau, 1992)
If that is true, he was asked, why bother to have any agglomerations at all? Why bother to have a headquarters? Why build a city of any kind, even a suburban one? Mr. Caspersen said, "You know, thats the question of the future. Why dont people all stay at home and work? Weve got over 1,000 people here and at least 10% of them work through our systems at home. Particularly women when theyre on maternity leave will do much of their work at home and use their terminals for that. But theres a line beyond which it really doesnt work. Its different for different people. But you lose that team spirit, the ability to work together, if you dont get the touchy-feely, the face-to-face. You can use it part time, you can use it at night, and you can use it on the weekend. But they still have to come in or you lose that synergy between people, you lose the corporate culture. And the corporate culture is very important." (Garreau, 1992)
Some firms, such as DTCC, only allow people to be eligible for telecommuting after they have been at the firm for a minimum number of years. In the case of DTCC that threshold is two years; at that point you would be eligible for the telecommuting work option. I think it could be somewhat difficult to successfully interact with someone via telecommuting if you have never had a face-to-face relationship with that person. I also think that if you have never gone into the corporate location, you will have much less motivation to help the corporation achieve its goals. I think this is why some firms only allow telecommuting after the employee has been with the firm for a certain period of time.
A great many people have touted telecommuting as the wave of the future when it comes to the nature of work. On the other hand, I do not believe that it will ever become a dominant form of work or social organization. I think that in fields that are heavily involved with information processing, it will be feasible for some people to do some, or all, of their work via telecommuting. However, even in areas that deal with a great deal of information processing, I think most employees will require some level of supervision, which will at times have to be fairly close supervision. Many employees will probably be capable of doing a small portion of their work via telecommuting, but I certainly do not think that telecommuting will be appropriate for all employees, even in data processing or information technology. For example, it is now fairly common for those people who are telecommuting to do so one day a week out of their five workdays. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that if everyone involved with information processing were to telecommute one day a week, many people might simply take that one day a week off from work and just do their work in the office the other four days of the week.
I do think that telecommuting is, and will become, an increasingly useful work option for a small number of people in a certain type of work. However, it should be noted that 75% of the workforce does not do any telecommuting, and the great majority who do telecommute do so one day a week. As prevalent as information technology is in the United States in 2001, it should be noted that the dominant trend in the workplace that is being fueled by this technology is one of complete automation. This means that no human intervention, whether in person or via remote communication media, is required. If no human intervention is required in a process, then the concept of work via telecommuting is irrelevant. The other work trend that should be noted is that we are becoming an increasingly service-oriented economy, where much labor is devoted to performing personal services for others. These services, by definition, have to involve close personal interaction between the provider and the recipient of the service, so the concept of telecommuting is irrelevant here as well.
I asked all my interviewees if they would want to telecommute if they had a short trip to work of 30 minutes or less. With one exception, they all said that they would rather come into the office in that case. The one exception was Mr. Giovia, the Novell manager. I was quite surprised by this response, because everyone I spoke to was rather enthusiastic about telecommuting, at least some of the time. I think that the significance of this response, which I found rather surprising, is diluted by the fact that my respondents tend to be fairly comfortably established in their corporate environments. They have built up good networks of relationships within their firms. This response also indicates that there is a need for many people to maintain a definite boundary between their work lives and their home lives.
There will be some people who will be willing and able to do a significant portion, or perhaps even all, of their work via the mechanism of telecommuting. I think this will be a fairly limited group of people, because most people will still need a significant amount of human contact in the work place. Humans still put an overwhelming premium on face-to-face contact. Telephones, fax machines, electronic mail, and video conferencing share a problem: they do not produce intense human relationships. They do not create interactions that end with either a fistfight or an embrace. Trust is difficult enough to build in person, much less over a wire. There is still a thriving market for bringing people together physically, because human beings are still gregarious animals.
An area for future research is the possibility of building communities of full-time
telecommuters. My speculation is that this would be possible, but only in a densely populated area. In such an area there would be enough leisure possibilities to facilitate relationships with other people outside the work place. In a remote area the need for human contacts would probably overwhelm the feasibility of wide-scale full-time telecommuting. In these remote areas you will find the occasional individual in his or her "little cabin in the woods" who wishes to telecommute in isolation, but this will not, by definition, result in the establishment of communities of telecommuters. It is more likely that we will see the establishment of virtual communities, as opposed to physical communities, of telecommuters.
Another interesting area is the role of government in the development of telecommuting. It seems to me that the idea of a large group of telecommuters selling their skills over the Internet to all comers is something that any strong central government would oppose. I will not develop this idea now, but I will explore it in a future essay on libertarian economics and politics.
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