I like my job. I even enjoy going to the office — most days. That’s why I’ll probably continue the trudge to Tamachi, even though this job is one of the most suited to telecommuting.
I’m not alone. A recent survey of U.S. workers found that about 41 percent of them figured they could conceivably do their work as telecommuters, but only 9 percent bite that particular bullet. Why? Some cited camaraderie or preferring a daily change of scenery; on the negative side, there are worries about missing something, or being thought expendable.
The number of workers who will be “telecommutable” is going to grow. That survey of U.S. workers showed that on average they spend about three hours a day on a computer, and 23 percent of their time on the Net. Seventy percent use computers at least an hour a day, and over a third stare at a screen at least half a day.
Even for white-collar workers who just push paper, there is a need for official face-time. Broadband technology isn’t widely accessible yet, but in a few years video-conferencing will be as normal as television. It will take some getting used to, but when it does, the number of telecommuters will jump.
The real proof of the erosion in the division between office and home is the decisions by major U.S. companies to give workers free PCs and Net access as part of their employment packages. Ford Motor Co. and Delta Air Lines last month said that every one of their employees would get a computer, printer and Internet access for about $5 a month. The unions that pushed Ford to accept the deal are encouraging Daimler-Chrysler to do the same. Companies in other industries are considering similar deals.
Those companies made the headlines, but let’s give credit where credit is due: Swedish and Norwegian companies have been doing this for years, although the price is a little more expensive. The government has done its bit, too, making the employees’ expenses tax-deductible.
This isn’t altruism. Companies have lots of reasons to help wire their employees. It’s an instant network, facilitating communications between the home and the office. In addition to ensuring that employees get messages, it makes it easier for people to work from home. It also encourages computer proficiency, the sine qua non of the digital economy.
Finally, it helps to alert employees to what customers are thinking. Ideally, they’ll be sensitized to the needs of the digital economy and see how their company is treated in cyberspace. Ford officials said they hope employees will be able to locate dissatisfied customers and find solutions to previously undetected problems.
As usual, Japan has been slow to join the madding rush to escape the maddening rush. It’s estimated that there are only 950,000 telecommuters here, in contrast to 10 million in the U.S. That is an improvement, however: In 1996, there were about 680,000 telecommuters, or about 4 percent of the white-collar labor force. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications predicts that number will climb to 2.48 million by 2001.
To encourage this trend, the MPT is pushing for a corporate tax break for telecommunications equipment and buildings.
While Japan is behind the curve, changes are on the way. IBM Japan announced that it will launch a program for employees who need to work full-time at home (usually to take care of family members). Today, only 16 of IBM Japan’s 20,000 employees telecommute. Under the new policy, employees ranked subchief or higher (about 30 years old) can work at home for up to 10 years without sacrificing pay and benefits.
Look for more companies to do the same. As the workforce shrinks, Japanese companies are going to do everything they can to get their hands on able employees. Telecommuting is one enticement.
It allows older folks to work from home, sparing them a commute that may well be the physically roughest part of the day. (That argument applies to all workers, but it’s particularly good for the gray labor force.) It plays to the strengths of an older worker — brains, not brawn. And just as no one knows you are a dog on the Net, no one cares about ageism either.
It also helps women with other priorities. They can work from home and devote more time to things such as raising children. (This isn’t sexism; here, those burdens fall disproportionately on women. Sad, but true.)
That said, telecommuting probably won’t just be plugging into the office from home. People will still want to get out of the house. Some offices will move to where the workers live. Hotels have business salons for traveling execs; expect the same in the suburbs.
Actually, those places have existed for a while, offering a receptionist, phone lines and services for people who can’t afford a lot of overhead. Kinko’s has been doing this for years.
The existing places are pretty sterile, but demand will create a new work environment. They’ll serve up business time in a social setting. You can work with your friends, even if you don’t work at the same company.
Impractical because companies will have to put too much information online? Many of them already do — that’s what distributed computing, thin clients and distant back offices are all about. Salespeople rambling across territory all day do it. Tomorrow, you won’t have to be a salesperson to have remote access.
This sounds enticing, but it is a potential minefield. Thus far, most employees with long electronic leashes work longer hours. Wiring the home gives the company access to your residence, whether you want it or not. You’re always on call. And there are privacy issues aplenty when it comes to doing personal things on the computers and ISPs they provide. Who is liable? Who has to monitor usage?
I’d ponder those questions in a more leisurely fashion, but I am at the office. Got to get back to work.
Brad Glosserman (email@example.com)