Telecommuting, Telecomputing, Telework – why are you AT work today?

It's not technology that keeps up on the commuter highway, it's outdated management thinking. Government could retain its best workers and increase job satisfaction and productivity by embracing telework.

By the time you read this it will be 2006. Depending on what predictions you have read and when you have read them, the world should have ended by now, Big Brother should be running our lives, or we should be some kind of race of cyborgs.

Personally, I am most disappointed that we don't have beds that can make themselves by now. Seriously though, as I was making my short commute (thank goodness!) to work today, I thought about telecommuting. For many years I drove over an hour to work each day and spent the better part of four hours on the average in traffic of some sort. In the mid to late 90s, telecommuting was born, and it was going to be the wave of the future. What happened?

Now that we have widely available broadband capability, laptops, PDAs, cell phones, instant messaging, Blackberrys, email, distance learning, video conferencing, collaboration tools, VPN, and terminal services, why the heck are we coming into the office?

I ask this question because, clearly, it is not technology that is keeping us from staying home. There is more to it than that. You would think that given all the purported benefits, employers would be glad to have you work at home. Let's take a look at some of them:

  • Increased worker satisfaction.
  • Increased worker productivity.
  • Increased worker retention.
  • Reduced costs for the employer – due to less need for space, utilities etc.
  • Disaster continuity.
  • Not to mention the societal benefits of reduced energy costs, less pollution, and more.

Sounds pretty good to me, so why the reluctance? Oh, you will hear about issues regarding insurance coverage in the home office, safety in the home office, and information security, but all these can be worked around. So there has to be something else.

The something else is the belief that if you are not sitting at your desk in your office, you can't possibly be working. It's an old-fashioned notion that if you are out of sight, you must be loafing. Many managers feel this way – and I am willing to bet that much of the general public feels this way too. Additionally, many managers do not manage by objectives/productivity, so the only way they know how to manage you is by being able to walk up and see you "working" at your desk.

This is a shame because a large amount of government work could be done from the home, saving the government considerable amounts of taxpayer money. But in order to do so, leadership/management has to have the mindset that telework (the new word for telecommuting) is a good thing, and they have to be willing to work to put the processes and capabilities in place to allow it to happen. This can involve infrastructure issues, employee and management training, some process re-engineering, etc. But the effort can be well worth it.

Also, keep in mind that telework does not necessarily mean disowning the office completely. In fact, many teleworkers do come into the office 2 to 3 days a week. After all, there is value to face-to-face work as well. But the "office" can mean shared work spaces in a smaller building using less equipment and, more importantly, less cost to own and operate.

Yes, I understand that some jobs are more suited to this style of work than others, and you can't make someone a hamburger via a broadband connection. However, there are more jobs that suit telework than you think. Contemplate this: How many of your workers sit in an office or cube all day and their only interaction with people is via the phone or PC except when someone pokes their head into their space or they have to attend a meeting? Hmm, more than you expected, isn't it?

I realize that to many senior managers, I am speaking heresy, and that embracing telework would mean the end of their organization as they know it. However, those that are a little more forward thinking might come to realize that this may be one way for government to keep their best and brightest for longer periods of time, in addition to reaping the benefits mentioned above.

Obviously, this concept is not beyond some government officials because Arizona, California, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Oregon require state agencies to implement teleworking programs.

I suggest that you browse some of the above mentioned states' Web sites as well as these resources: The Telework Collaborative, The Telework Coalition , and the federal Office of Personnel Management's telework program, and see if telework can make sense in your organization.

Perhaps by 2010 we will have a bed that can make itself, in the meantime, let's try to utilize the freedom that comes with all this great technology at our disposal.