CIO Confidential: Telecommuting Is not the Solution to Bad Traffic

A friend sent me an article he’d clipped from the Jan. 11 Christian Science Monitor, something about Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and how it still resonates 33 years later. Spare me. A tiny article on the back of the clipping, however, did catch my eye. It told of a 25 watt lightbulb that had been burning continuously for the past 70 years in the restroom of an Ipswich, England, electrical shop.

The story isn’t so remarkable because of this particular, perversely persistent lightbulb but because this particular bit of technology made 70 years ago is still compatible with 21st century systems. It’s a reminder that things in their quintessential form--be they technology, processes or even ideas--if left unmolested, can and do last a very long time. And furthermore, despite the hype, real, honest-to-God, life-altering, bell-ringing change has actually been decelerating when viewed over a period of, say 100 to 120 years. The fact is, the gadgets that fill our homes and hang from our belts are merely the sheen of technology, and our boasts of rapid and miraculous change are actually little more than the narcissism of small differences.

I happen to live near one of the epicenters of the high-tech scramble, or at least what’s left of it. The city is, at once, awash in money and suffering a nearly complete breakdown of infrastructure and services under the crush of immigration by huddled masses in Range Rovers. The newcomers crowd into prairie mansion ghettos in ever widening circles around a commercial hub. Consequently, the traffic situation between 5:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. is a disaster, and there are currently no new major roadways under construction to relieve the problem.

The city council, recently back in session after a two week sabbatical presumably spent hugging trees and rereading Mao’s Little Red Book, has jumped all over this issue by proposing an ordinance that would require companies of a certain size and type to have at least 10 percent of their workforce telecommuting by the end of 2001. It has even been suggested that the number should rise to 25 percent by the end of 2003. These city councilors are not as dumb as they look. Why engage the problem head-on when you can lay it off on the private sector, the productivity and profitability of which is not your concern?

It’s not that telecommuting isn’t a superficially popular notion. It’s difficult to find a manager, particularly those having an impossible time recruiting, to admit publicly to his desire to rein in this nontrend, especially in the light of all the excitement fabricated by media and marketing organizations.

Surveys estimating the number of telecommuters out there vary widely (5 percent to 20 percent), depending on who’s asking and why. The higher percentages tend to include any workers who access e-mail at home, and even the lower percentages include job descriptions like regional sales managers and others who spend much of their time traveling or working in places without headquarters or regional offices. One survey I’ve heard about suggests that the number may even be shrinking because a growing number of workers say they’d rather be in the office than at home--and they’d rather have their managers and coworkers close at hand, as well. There are some very good and anthropologically significant reasons why this might be happening that are worth examining before we start handicapping our organizations.

It seems pretty obvious to me that telecommuting, at least in its current incarnation (and in light of slightly worsening unemployment numbers), will continue to sputter along for the foreseeable future, but I have to admit that my personal biases may be clouding my otherwise flawless reasoning. As hard as I try, I can’t think about telecommuting without picturing what it would be like if I were forced to work from home. The picture ain’t pretty. First, with a fully stocked refrigerator within easy reach and no self-consciousness about eating at my desk, I’m pretty sure my weight would go to hell in no time. After a while my suits would stop fitting, I’d probably quit shaving and getting regular haircuts, eventually developing a striking resemblance to Lone Gunman Melvin Frohike.

Then there’s the whole "emotional well-being" thing. The most significant difference between an extrovert and an introvert like me is that an extrovert gathers energy interacting with people while an introvert expends it. What is common to both, though, is that an inadequate amount of interaction can have an impact on all kinds of things, including creativity, and even lead to depression (a dead certainty in my case). Depression, like fatigue, leaves me thin-skinned, distracted and angry. When asked by reporters, the landlord described the portly systems analyst as a good tenant, quiet, who mostly kept to himself.

But personal biases aside, there does seem to be a palpable backlash out there against teleworking, primarily because of the corrosive effect it’s having on productivity, team spirit and sense of corporate culture.

A company’s culture, good, bad or indifferent, is at the heart of the social contract it keeps with its employees and is a key determinate of its competitiveness and profitability. According to a report in the SAM Advanced Management Journal in the fall of 1999, significant percentages of disparate telecommuters may actually sabotage corporate culture. Telecommuters, according to the journal, are, in many ways, very different from office workers.

No Kidding

Laugh if you will, but how exactly do we, as managers, reinforce and maintain the basic norms, beliefs and values of our particular cultures with no water coolers to gather around or lunchrooms to meet in? Your corporate culture is communicated, strengthened, modified, added to and reinforced through informal discussions, stories, rituals and your company’s own special version of acronyms and corpspeak. Geographic dispersion and disembodied work teams are not formulas for strengthening esprit de corps. Not to mention the whole issue of the real-time, fast-paced, in-your-face collaboration needed to take one person’s half-baked idea and turn it into something an entire team can contribute to and get behind.

And then there’s the whole issue of our deep-seated need for community. Many of us live in housing developments that aren’t anything like the neighborhoods or communities that our parents and grandparents were accustomed to. Today, almost every family has two breadwinners and there’s never anybody home. The parents rush to pick up dinner in a bag, throw the kids in the car and head off to the baseball game or the soccer tournament that lasts all weekend in another city. Today you can live in your house for 10 years and never meet the people next door. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way it is.

But communities haven’t disappeared; they’ve relocated. Today, the person in the next cubicle is your neighbor and the company is the closest thing to a community that most of us will ever know. This community, with its sense of belonging and common purpose, is at the heart of what drives the most excellent IT organizations in America. It also makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning. Can an organization be successful without a sense of community? No, it can’t.

And yet, the dabbling goes on. In one of the weirdest twists yet to this misbegotten social experiment, Merrill Lynch now staffs what’s called a "corporate hotel" in the New Jersey suburbs where certain employees can book a cubicle through the intranet whenever they need an office. The theory is that their telework centers may boost productivity, allowing employees to evade the distractions of dirty laundry and the TV at home--as well as water-cooler chitchat at the office. Here’s an idea that combines all of the disadvantages of telecommuting with all of the expense and inconvenience of maintaining office space.

Who Dreams Up This Stuff?

It’s hard to say at this point what my city council might do. I hope they consider the impact that such a drastic move is likely to have on those of us who pay the bills.

I also hope no one decides to take that lightbulb in England apart to figure out why it’s still working. Given its age, just unscrewing it would probably break the filament and its replacement will certainly be short-lived by comparison. It should be enough to say that the bulb is the product of an uncompromised design joined with flawless materials and the highest level of craftsmanship in manufacture.

Execution like this happens, sometimes, but it can’t be phoned in.

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