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Where are all the Electronic Cottages?

April 28, 2008
by Pete Rivera
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If you read the Third Wave by Alvin Toffler it predicted in the 1980’s that we would all have computers in our homes and people would be working from home with full connectivity to their offices. When I first read it I could not imagine the painful process of using a modem to do business all day. Yet now we have internet companies investing in fiber optic home connectivity.

So why do so many IT shops and Billing Departments still need to have their employees within arms reach? They work in cubes, tethered to a PC and come out of the confines of the fabric barriers only to retrieve a print job or heat up a snack. Communication with the person in the next cube is made primarily via e-mail. Firewalls, VPN’s, and network security technology now exists to make remote connectivity a very basic process. Yet, we still have a very small percentage of employees taking advantage of existing tele-commuting technology.

Tele-commuting incentives exists with higher energy costs, longer commutes and the cost of fuel. So the question is; why are we not embracing the same technology that we are providing to our customers? Why is this very simple environmental conservation idea not fully embraced?



This is a great point! I often wonder why we advance technologically, but not socially in some ways - just like this. Some of it is due to the management paradigm lagging technology. Many managers still "manage by walking around" vs. managing by results. Also, there's the trust issue that is impolite to mention - "are they working if I can't see them?"
Managers need tools to be able to allow people to work virtually and know they are getting the job done, without insulting them by asking them to document their every hour away from the office. They need some tools — and I haven't seen any yet.

Excellent point. I see that in some of the large organizations (Perot Systems, EDS, SAIC, Veterans Administration) that have a geographically disperse workforce. Those that are close to main office buildings can not tele-commute, but other employees in remote areas can. This of course causes some employees to feel like they are not treated fairly. But isn't more about how the policy is developed and applied?

because there is a natural tendency, wrong though it may be, to assume that out of sight means not working at all. This gets better over time as the relationship between a manager and employee deepens to a level where the trust is there, but for new or younger employees, this can take longer to develop.

I guess it does come down to trust. However, I would challenge the average manager/director to determine how they gauge productivity in the office environment. It should be the same for the tele-commuter: response time to e-mails, customer call turn-around time, participation on conference calls, etc. If we really wanted to get serious about productivity efforts, we could check VPN logs and application access logs. The reality is that with VOIP you can even have client calls routed to home offices. The virtual office technology is cheap and available. Then managers would not have to walk around checking on dress codes.

Yes, responsiveness is a great way to gauge a person's productivity. Having been a telecommuter for over 4 years now, I can say from experience that I am much more productive as a telecommuter than an office worker. There's no chit-chat at the elevator, or the coffee room or other workers stopping by to say hello. The focus is all on the work and what needs to be accomplished, responding to e-mails, IM's, phone calls, participating in net meetings, etc. The only difference really is the personal conversations, face-to-face time and time it takes to get to the meetings. If it weren't for wireless headsets, many telecommuters would literally chained to their desk by the phone cord.

So, the bottom-line is, there are pros/cons to every work environment. Of course, not everyone can telecommute due to the nature of the work. However, given the rising fuel costs, the help to our environment, benefit to the employee, and savings to the employer, telecommuting really should be more readily provided as an alternative.

The Federal government recognizes this and encourages their agencies to provide telecommuting as an option. It even penalizes agencies when the don't!

It is not all about trust. It is also about perceived fairness or more from an HR perspective discrimination. There are some jobs that must be done at the "plant", those that require face to face patient contact for example. Rightly or wrongly, there is this belief that if the benefit/privilege of telecommuting is not an option for all employees of the organization then it can't be an option for anyone.

I think it is also how the HR person explains it in the hiring process, to set the stage and expectations of the company. Everyone has different roles it's not a one-fits-all market. Otherwise, we'd all be paid the same, too!