Other people ask "why telecommute?", but Glenn Reynolds asks, "why not?"
DIGITAL NOMADS: High gas prices promote telecommuting. "One thing leads to another. High gas prices prompt employers (including the federal government) to allow employees to work from home once a week. Once that's accepted culturally, an elephant appears in the boardroom: If it's OK once a week, why isn't it OK five times a week? (This is what happened with 'casual Friday' -- its once-a-week acceptance lead to the current trend of casual wear every day.) Once telecommuting is accepted, 'extreme telecommuting' -- working from the Bahamas or Paris or an internet-connected shack on the Australian Outback -- becomes acceptable, too. After all, once you're out of the office and connecting to the company over the Internet, it doesn't really matter where you are, does it?"
All is proceeding exactly as I have foreseen. Related thoughts here.
Someone was even more prescient than Glenn. When Alfred Bester wrote his science fiction classic, The Stars My Destination back in the 1950s, fans probably wondered, "what if I could Jaunt" "Jaunting", for those who have never read the book, is a way of teleporting oneself from place to other. The initial problem in Gully Foyle's world -- he's the protagonist -- is that Jaunting is limited by connectivity. People need to know where they are going to go in order to Jaunt there. That fact prevented people from Jaunting into stranger's living rooms. Never having been there, they could never visualize it exactly.
If Jaunting sounds a little like telecommuting, well it is. And despite appearances, the mainstream workplace really has nothing against it. What they expect you to do, however, is telecommute to other places from the office. Once you get to a physical office then it's OK to Jaunt anywhere in the world. IT guys are allowed to take control of hundreds, possibly thousands of remote PCs. Managers sit down to phone and video conferences. The VOIP lines buzz continuously. The fax machines -- if any still exist -- spew out their anachronistic paper. Jaunting is OK. Just do it from the office.
Glenn Reynolds was right when he argued at Tech Central Station that people are required to come to the office not primarily to work, but to be controlled. Union bosses and managers will therefore oppose telecommuting to the bitter end. "Managers because they like to have workers in plain sight (which also makes managers look more important), and unions because it's harder to organize workers who aren't all in one place."
Clearly some managers are against Jaunting simply because it's new-fangled. During a trip last year to Southeast Asia, I met an old classmate who was the personal portfolio manager of one of the richest men in Asia. The old Chinese man had made his fortune in a very traditional line of retail trading. He was very forward looking in some ways, but in others he was positively medieval. Apart from his shares in the corporation, his family had a portfolio of securities traded in every major financial market in the world. My old classmate made trades worth millions of dollars every day on their behalf. But with one handicap. He was not allowed his own direct dial telephone line. Every time he needed to use the telephone he had to walk into the adjoining office and use the bosses' secretary's telephone.
But despite the odd eccentrics, most rational businessmen realize the potential of telecommuting. The first is it's potential to save time. By eliminating the three or four hours of commute time an employer can potentially liberate a large part of the day from the tyranny of sitting in a car and acquire a vastly larger pool of potential talent. There's no reason why companies have to limit their selection of employees to people who live within 80 miles of a building. Finally, telecommuting forces one to concentrate -- I find -- on attending real meetings and doing real work rather than on the task of merely showing up.
High gas prices are now literally pushing the marginal workers out of the market. The buses and trains in Sydney are unusually crowded with people who've given up their cars in favor of mass transportation because they can no longer afford the deadly combination of car registration fees, vehicle tolls, parking charges, installment payments and gas charges that are the running cost of a car. People are actually looking to carpool in a country where one's private automobile is the hallmark of adulthood and independence.
I think Glenn Reynolds is right in asserting that greed will now vie with the urge for control and loosen the manager's grip on workers at the margin. It may encourage them to look for ways to monitor and manage telecommuting more reliably. Or they may allow certain categories of workers to do their business from home.
Of course there will be categories of activity that will have to be performed in person. But for many types of work, telcommuting makes perfect sense. It can save time and heck of a lot of gas. Thirty years from today we'll laugh when we think of how back in 2008 most employers required workers to physically commute to work so that they could sit down at their computers. No longer will they say, as generations once did:
Gully Foyle is my name
I work for a corporation
The freeway is my dwelling place
The office my destination.
The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.