Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Whither telecommuting? The idea intrigues me if only because I’ve been doing it for over 20 years (starting from downstate Virginia with a modem connected to the central computer at The Washington Times).

At one time great predictions were made. Offices would wither, people would see each other on video screens, and an age of independence would arrive. People would work from cabins in Wyoming for companies in New York. Somehow it hasn’t happened. Why?

When I tried to look into it, I found countless studies and statistics, mostly contradicting each other. Everyone agrees there is more of it, but the question is how much more. Part of the difficulty was a matter of definitions: If you work from home one day a week, are you a telecommuter? A lot of telecommuters don’t show up because they are independent contractors and not really on anybody’s radar screen. Nobody has ever asked me about it, for example.

The federal government says as much as 30 percent of the U.S. population now works at home at least part of the time. This includes the self-employed, contract workers, moonlighters and people simply bringing work home from the office.

One thing is certain: Advancing technology is making telecommuting easier.

A friend of mine does database management from home, visiting clients only when necessary. It’s a full-time job, he’s good at it, and he supports a family in suburban Washington. He can do it because of things like broadband and PCAnywhere, software that allows him to log on to clients’ computers and work on them as if he were there.

A woman I know does Web design from home. She has clients all over the United States. She e-mails her work to the clients. They look at what she has done, comment by a mixture of telephone, e-mail, and instant messaging, and she makes adjustments. It would not have been possible before broadband and design software like Dreamweaver.

Now she’s competitive with anyone. Her clients probably don’t know that she frequently leaves her desk to care for young children. Why would they care?

Another friend manages networks for associations. He is sort of a telecommuter. He spends a lot of time on the telephone or with PCAnywhere, walking clients through the horror of network problems. But he spends a lot of time on site. I know a woman who makes her living on EBay; so do tax preparers and consultants in droves, programmers, and lots of writers.

Writers in particular have taken to telecommuting. Tending to be loners anyway, they now sit in front of laptops anywhere in the world, listening to Internet radio, doing research via Google, working when the mood strikes, and filing by e-mail. If they get bored, they grab a beer and walk along the beach in Fiji or wherever they are. All publications I know of are perfectly happy with the arrangement. Editors want clean copy on deadline. It’s all they want.

So why isn’t there more of it? One reason of course is that it only works for information workers. You can’t replace clutch assemblies at home, unless your home is a fully equipped auto shop. Some bosses seem to want the worker bees under their thumbs. And it appeals more to introverts, the solitary, and the self-starting. I’ve met those who tried and gave up because they simply needed to be around people.

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