Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 8 / AUGUST 1985 / PAGE 26

Are you a candidate for telecommuting? (Teletalk) Corey Sandler.

I hate going to the office--it always gets in the way when I have work to do. First there is the alarm chirping at an ungodly hour, robbing me of needed sleep; then there is the wasted effort of joining the briefcase brigade on the commuter train (the one with the reliably unreliable schedule), and finally there is the office itself with its continual interruptions: coffee breaks, elevator waits, baseball pools, pointless meetings, and idle chitchat.

And what do I do when I make it to my desk? I sit down in front of a personal computer and spend the day sending and receiving electronic mail, researching stories from electronic databases, calling people on the telephone, and writing. The number of face-to-face meetings I absolutely must attend are quite limited.

Why, then, you may ask, don't I telecommute? (That was your question, wasn't it?) The answer, I'm afraid, is more societal than technical: the day of the full arrival of the telecommuter is being delayed by a number of not-insignificant details, none of which has much to do with the essential mechanics of the task.

Telecommuting is the electronic recognition of the fact that for many jobs it is the performance of the task that is important, rather than the physical presence of the worker. If your job is to guide the operations of a drill press, or to deliver a Big Mac from the grill to the customer's hands, then until you are replaced by a robot, you are not a candidate for telecommuting. If, on the other hand, you are in charge of manipulating electronic data--be it as a word processor, a database manager, or an accounts payable clerk--you are a servant of the information age. Where you do your work is of secondary importance to the job to be done.

It is the telecommunication link--through a leased telephone line, a direct modem-to-modem link, or an indirect connection through the services of a value-added network--that makes telecommuting possible. For example, I now send three-quarters of my magazine articles, letters, and memos via electronic mail. I do most of my research on-line, either by consulting one of the many electronic database services, or with a direct micro to mainframe link. The rest of my time is generally spent on the telephone, and the people I'm speaking with don't know whether I am in a plush Park Avenue office or in my spare bedroom at home.

How big is this a potential stay-at-home workforce? Some studies say that 50 to 55% of the American workforce shuffles information for a living. A telecommuting specialist says that by 1990 more than 10 million Americans will leave the driving to others and plug in from home. Futurist Alvin Toffler puts the number even higher--15 million by the end of this decade.

But today? The most optimistic estimate is that some 40,000 persons now telecommute--doing jobs at home that ordinarily would be perormed in the office. Many of those workers are supported by the 400 or so companies that have official policies allowing or even encouraging the practice. There are also a fair number of workers who can honestly declare that they will stay home on occasion to get a report done, or to answer the mail.

But as you can surely see, there is a long distance between 40,000 telecommuters today and 10 million five years from now. Here are some of the issues and prejudices yet to be resolved:

The Nose-Counting Syndrome

I once worked for a boss who ran his operation as if he were the coxswain on a slave galleyship. He had turned his desk around so that it faced the plate glass windown that ran the width of his office, and he sat there all day watching. All of our desks were turned to face his. If one of us lifted our eyes from the desktop to think, we would meet his disapproving gaze. We soon perfected inventive techniques to look buys, even at the cost of real productivity. This man, who showed no real understanding of or interest in the work we were performing, was a supervisor who managed activity rather than results.

I can't imagine such a supervisor accepting the redeployment of his troops to their homes without the installation of television cameras and time clocks in the family den. His personal definition of power included the ability to point to the straining oarspeople under his command.

And, some workers might not be suited to working at home. It takes a certain sort of self-motivated person to be able to get out of bed and into the den or home office each day without a nose-counter watching. And there are distractions like television sets, children, refrigerators, day ball games, and warm beds.

Finally, home workers may have to deal with the possibility that out of sight means out of mind when it comes to such things as promotions, new projects, and raises. At the same time, the home worker is somewhat insulated from office politics.

The Sweat Shop Ethic

If Willie manages a production/sales spreadsheet from home while Janice does the identical job in the office, should they be paid the same? Should Willie receive full benefits? Should Janice be paid a bonus for her time, effort, and expense in commuting to work? Should the company subsidize Willie's electric bill at home? How about Janice's subway tokens? Should Willie have the right to join a union?

And then there are some questions of fair labor practice, an issue of particular importance where people are being paid on a piecework basis to perform tasks like entering health claim forms into a computer or conducting telephone surveys or entering text into a database. There are well-intentioned laws that are supposed to guard against employer abuse in such things as the number of hours of work per week, the working conditions themselves, and child labor regulations. How can these conditions be monitored from afar?

The basic federal law here dates back nearly half a century to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Under that law, and regulations promulgated by the Labor Department in 1943, seven industries--knitted outerwear, women's garments, embroidery, handkerchiefs, jewelry, buttons and buckles, and gloves and mittens--cannot be farmed out by a company to workers at home. The intent, aided by pressure from unions seeking to hold onto jobs and membership, was to make certain that home workers received wages no less than the minimum wage and to ensure conditions were no worse at home than they were at the work place.

Now, some unions are pressuring federal and state governments to either ban outright or strictly regulate telecommuters.

Security Issues

Is it a wise move to allow sensitive corporate data out of the office, whether that information is conveyed electronically via a modem or on a disk or tape, or whether papers are shipped to and from home workers? And who is liable for the security of that information--the employer or the employee?

The ownership of the equipment itself is another issue. If the PC or terminal is owned by the employee, then some sort of compensation should be made by the employer. If the equipment is provided to the home worker by the company, the situation is simpler, unless that worker allows his 10-year-old to play PacMan or his wife to run a freelance accounting business on weekends. The IRS might want to charge the worker for additional benefits.

The Show-Me-the-Bottom-Line Syndrome

In the end, the real determiner of the success or failure of the telecommuting revolution will be the bottom line. If companies can be shown that they will save on office space, energy costs, and other fixed expense, they will take notice. If they can also save on salaries, benefits, and at the same time pick up some productivity, they will appreciate that, too.

And wait--it gets better: let's suppose the government will give the employer tax credits or direct grants for training and employment of the handicapped or the homebound. And how about incentives to hire mothers with young children at home? It is, on the face of it, a wonderful idea that can recapture the productive brains of otherwise unemployable human beings. Ah, but let's ask a few real world questions: will this mean the loss of jobs for the able-bodied? Will it mean that the home worker will be paid substantially less than the office worker? Will all wages decline as a result?

The "Daddy Doesn't Work Anymore" Syndrome

How do you explain to the neighbors that you don't go to Wall Street anymore, but you are still gainfully employed? The still-developing lore of telecommuting includes the story of a man who insists on dressing in a three-piece business suit each morning before heading down the hall to his den where he sometimes plays a tape of the sounds of his former office.

When I told my loving wife I was considering working full-time from my office at home, her eyes glazed over. "You're going to have to rent an office a few blocks from here anyhow," she said sweetly.

"But, I won't need to get out of the house," I replied.

"No," she answered, "you might not, but I will."

Telecommunications Bits

The State University of New York has formed a Telecommunications Institute that will offer degrees in electronic information, including a bachelor of science degree in telecommunications. Courses will include the history of telecommunications in the telephone industry, voice and data communications, transmission theory, principles of switching, and terminal equipment and network design.

The istitute, at the new Marcy campus of the State College of Technology at Utica-Rome inupstate New York, is a joint venture with Nynex Business Information Systems Co., a subsidiary of what used to be AT&T's New York Telephone Co.

"The industry tells us that there is a need for 100,000 people with training nationwide," says James Countryman, vice president for academic and student affairs of the college.

I can hear the latest pep rally chant now: "2-4-6-8, Time to Tella-communeacte!"