Tuesday 23 April 2013

In praise of telecommuting: The slacker work ethic

When I worked in an office, I got nothing done.  I mean, literally nothing.  I viewed the hours I was stuck there, rather than any work I might produce, as the price of my paycheque & benefits.  Physically being in my cubicle, at my desk, from X am to X pm, was my job.  I had to answer the phone if it rang, go to meetings, deal with requests from bosses, but only at a bare minimum.  It was mainly clock-watching.  Before the Internet, it was harder to kill the time and look busy.   But for nearly 20 years now, both work and slacking off have involved staring at a computer screen.  My day revolved around deciding what I would have for lunch & snacks.  I never ate breakfast before work (not even once in all my years of working in an office, no exaggeration) as eating it at my desk gave me something fun to do whilst waiting to get lunch.  As you would expect, on the rare occasions when the job was busy & I was actually working, the time flew by much faster than on the days when I was staring at the clock, reading Fark, or trying to sneak a book on my lap under the desk.  When I had freelance work, I would try to do it at my day job.  Since I was trapped there for X number of hours, might as well use that time to get it done rather than my precious free time.

When I segued from cubicle dronedom to freelancing full-time, my work habits changed drastically.  When working from home, I was trapped at my desk only as long as it took to get the work done.  I didn’t have to sit there until 5:00pm if I finished.  I could do a million other projects, whether chores or hobbies.  I could reach a certain point in an assignment, go out for a run, and come back to it, refreshed and ready to tackle the next stage.  If I wanted to shop when the supermarket was less crowded or hit the gym when it was least busy, I could go in the middle of a weekday & work in the evenings or weekends.  The key difference was that I was no longer merely putting in time: I was rewarded for productivity, not being in a certain place for X number of hours each week.  I was compensated based on the quality and quantity of my work, not whether I was 15 minutes late or took an extra vacation day.  The biggest incentive to get work done was that I was free when it was finished and not a moment sooner or later.

So, you can imagine my reaction to the recent corporate trend to bring telecommuters back to the office.  Obviously, I think it is a huge mistake.  You want people to be productive, you don’t put them in a cubicle, you let them work sitting next to a swimming pool.  You can bet they will get that assignment finished so their butt can be in that pool as soon as humanly possible.  Put that same person in a cubicle and tell them they cannot leave until 5:30pm, and I will show you a person reading Amazon reviews and web comics all day long.  I’ve noticed that I barely have time to skim the headlines of the papers since I began telecommuting.  I really have to think an article is worth my treasured time to read the whole thing.  When I worked in an office, I read the paper cover-to-cover every day.  Remember when games like Tetris came with a panic button that switched the screen to a spreadsheet if someone walked by?  And when corporations started blocking websites to prevent their employees from checking their personal email and doing online shopping on "company time"?  You won't find a virtual worker slacking off because they are paid for results, not time.

To be fair, one of the reasons put forth for ending telecommuting is that face-to-face contact is useful for brainstorming and innovation.  I will grant you that the idea-generation and problem-solving stages of a project can benefit from group brainstorming sessions.  But that is what meetings are for, whether in person, or over Skype.  I have no objection to the theory that innovation needs collaboration but that necessity does not translate into a blanket ban on telecommuting.  Making people come into the office, in person or virtually, for facetime is reasonable.  But the high-handed command at Yahoo! to come back into the office full-time or quit was extreme, and will end up being counterproductive.  There is also a certain irony to a technology company banning working over the Internet.  It also does not help their image that the CEO is filthy rich.  A lower-paid employee could never afford the childcare arrangements she has made that enable her to put in long hours at the office despite being a new mother.  At best, she suffers from a lack of empathy.  I expect she has no clue how the little people beneath her live, and cares less.

Telecommuting is cheaper for employers, and it is a necessity in a society that does not provide paid parental leave.  It has become increasingly viable due to new technology, and it will continue to become practical in more industries.  It will never be an option in hands-on service industries (imagine a virtual firefighter or hair dresser) but the people who enter those professions know what they are getting into.  Trying to roll back time and turn people back into clock-watching cubicle zombies will lower productivity, not raise it.  I can vouch for that.

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