Why don’t we all telecommute?

I was reading a post today about the recent collapse of portions of a highway in California. There were thousands of people who had to make alternate arrangements to get to work. The bloggers asked:

Why are all those people commuting to their downtown offices in the first place? If you’ve got the right IT resources and work for a company that understands the power of not commuting, you know what I’m talking about.

My thoughts exactly. I have found that all of my respondents have ample access to their email and their work files when they are away from work. This is partly because they have to (business trips and off-site meetings have made their employers equip them with whatever they need).

But for some reason, this doesn’t translate into “I work from home regularly” or “I like to telecommute once a week.”

There’s likely a reason for this that is not at all economically rational. Ask yourself how much it costs for an employer to equip an office. Fill it with people and their machines, the support staff, the kitchen. Add all the maintenance costs. The telephone costs, the network costs. Now think about your own home office (come on, we know you have one). How much do you spend on yours? Could you work at home, conceivably? Do you have what you need to do so?

Now why is the employer spending all that money? One theory, suggested by Harvard professor Stephen Marglin is that economic efficiency is less important than control. Another Harvard prof, Shoshanna Zuboff, argues that technology is chosen specifically to “informate” (that is help the creative process) or to simply control.

The idea is that intentions behind the design of the “office technology” (that is, its form) matters. What is the intention behind a group of people, coming in at the same time, to the same place, everyday. Is it economically efficient? Is it socially cohesive? Is it controlling?

Our friends at the Future of Work think it’s not sustainable (Shoshanna Zuboff agrees). But the questions about control and intention must be asked when you think about telecommuting.


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