So, where are the telecommuters?

Telecommuters are invisible. Is that good or bad?

A piece by Tom Zeller in The New York Times took note of the fact that New York was in a state of pedestrian and vehicle gridlock during the recent transit strike. All that commuter commotion leads one to ask, "Doesn't anybody telecommute?"

Of course, there are plenty of telecommuters.  But you can't see them, the 26.1 million of them in the U.S. alone. Many of you may even be telecommuters, at least part time.  Telecommuting is, by nature, a completely invisible phenomenon. 

Being invisible, of course, has its good and bad points. You're far from the maddening crowds. A full-time telecommuter may feel out of the loop with office politics, which is probably a good thing. But then there's the camaraderie, the serendipity, the water-cooler stuff. A friend, also a full-time telecommuter, is highly respected and visible in his industry, but told me that he is not visible enough at corporate headquarters, which makes it difficult to build support for project proposals.

Zeller quotes Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance at Oxford University in his piece: "Even in a world of casual instant-messaging and near-free phone calling, a shout down the hall still matters."

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a telecommuter myself. I preached the virtues of virtual work for years from a 9-to-5 corporate office, then eventually decided I'd better give myself a taste of my own medicine. It's worked out; and I work, mostly virtual, on a project basis with teams of editors, consultants, and developers across the country and several continents, including New York metro, San Francisco/Northern California, Chicago, Boston, U.K., Argentina, and Austria. Many of the professionals I deal with are telecommuters or work-at-home types themselves, and some are quite happy with the arrangements. Others tried it, and ended up climbing the walls.

I worked out of my house for a number of years. The commute wasn't bad, except for an occasional traffic jam at the top of the steps, or inclement weather by the kitchen. I had occassional bouts of cabin fever, which I attempted to resolve by pestering friends and colleagues to go to lunch.

I even worked at home through the early years of my first daughter, who would come in and spread her dolls throughout the office while I was engaged in industry briefings or teleconferences with clients. I would often trip over Ariel the Mermaid or Ring-Around-the-Rosie while attempting to retrieve a file in the midst of a discussion. When number two came along, I knew I could not sustain whatever productivity I had, and moved to shared professional office quarters. Which has a water cooler, by the way.

It's inevitable that telecommuting -- whether from home, shared offices, or branch offices -- will continue to grow. Our operations -- from software development to testing to data centers to marketing to sales to customer service -- are all highly distributed, and based on networks. There's really no need to have everyone in one facility, or compelled to relocate to a facility.

But the issue is visibility. And, just as important, is there a remedy for cabin fever? Perhaps the best approach is a little of both, the best of both worlds  -- corporate face time a couple of days, and telecommute time a couple of days.

So, enough of my pontification; let's hear it, readers -- if you telecommute, are you enjoying it, or do you find yourself climbing the walls sometimes?

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