Telecommuting Considered Harmful

Telecommuting Considered Harmful

Jun 14, 10 • In Philosophy

According to a recent UC Davis study, telecommuting can be harmful to your career. I agree.

Terms have a narratives associated with them. The narratives that come with “telecommuter” sound something like these: “As a special thanks for your loyalty, we are allowing senior-level perssonnel to telecommute two days a week”. “In order to cut costs, a new telecommuting initiative is in effect”. “During the inclement weather, a liberal leave policy is in effect, and employees may opt to telecommute”. “Telecommuting” is almost always viewed as a perk, a cost-cutting measure, or a concession to circumstance.

As the word itself suggests, a telecommuter is expected to remain a spiritual commuter. She gets up in the morning, has breakfast, and then transports herself virtually to the office for the next eight hours. There she must to fit into the existing office culture and coordinate with the physical office schedule. She may not ask her boss or coworkers to make too many special adjustments to accommodate her remote status; rather, she needs to make accommodations where necessary.

As I’ve gone through the process of creating and publicizing this site, I’ve deliberately avoided the term “telecommuting”. I believe that term suggests a model of remote work which is still as much like traditional 9-to-5 office work as possible. And that’s not the kind of work I want to build a community around.

If I contracted with an artisan woodworker to build me a set of custom chairs, I wouldn’t tell him “oh, and as a special perk, you can spend two days a week telecommuting from your fully-equipped workshop, and the other three days in my garage”. We don’t expect artists to do their best work from a cubicle. One might prefer a secluded cabin; another, a studio shared with fellow artists filled with the tools of the trade, still another might want to spend time at the site of the final installation. The same is true of software developers, designers, copywriters, and other creative professionals.

In talking to numerous remote workers, I’ve found that for many of them, a big part of the reason they are remote is so that they can work in the way which is most effective and satisfying – and therefore, productive. Remote workers aren’t just looking for perks; they are building ideal spaces and schedules for their own creative processes.

I firmly believe that dispersed teamwork is an entirely new model of work, with its own rhythms and dynamics. As remote workers , we should seek out organizations which are able to recognize and respect this new model. Someone hiring a “telecommuter” will never be as satisfied with that person as they are with an actual commuter. But employers and clients who are ready to embrace the unique strengths of a distributed team will reap the benefits of work done by individuals who are satisfied, inspired, motivated, and who bring diverse perspectives to their creations.

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3 Responses to Telecommuting Considered Harmful

  1. Mark Hoffman says:

    Great points. The term does imply that working from home should follow the same parameters as cubicle dwelling, just from a different location.

    I recently made the decision to have my team work from home and the results have been great. We actually communicate more (via Campfire) than we did when were in the same office. With Pivotal Tracker and Github integrated into Campfire, there is a palpable buzz to our team; we are in sync and getting things done.

    Beyond the productivity improvements, it’s great to know that my team has freedom and flexibility in their schedules to optimize their family time. It’s too early to tell, but I’m guessing that work environments like this will play a part in recruitment and retention. Our next hire will be a Rails developer and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to cast a wider net since they won’t necessarily have to be in Dallas.

  2. […] least one study has shown that simply seeing a coworker every day can significantly improve the impression team […]

  3. Great article, Avdi.

    In my opinion, while face to face can’t be beat for prolonged intensive collaboration, my home office is better equipped than those of all of my employers of the last decade. Furthermore, when hyperfocus on technical challenges is needed, I do far better alone than in a shared office. For difficult problems, I even find that speaking out loud while I go, as if teaching or explaining to myself, helps me hone in on the solution more quickly — there’s something about listening to myself speak that makes it easier for me to catch errors in my understanding than merely thinking. This is something I cannot do with my coworkers present.

    Wanting to do my best has at times been at odds with expectations of some employers, who assumed that physical absence from the office by definition means decreased productivity — they considered the downsides but not the upsides. According to this zero sum win-lose thinking, convenience for the worker necessarily is a cost rather than a win-win benefit.

    So, in my opinion, neither colocation nor telecommuting are by themselves ideal — instead, assuming colocation is an option, an optimized mix of the two is best…and, dare I say, agile? 🙂

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