Is Telework the New Face of the Agile Workforce?

By Kurt Cagle
August 2, 2008 | Comments: 2
Telework Image

Gas prices shot north of $4 a gallon (more than $6 a gallon in Canada) recently, though there are some indications that a drawback in gasoline prices is likely to occur in the fairly near future. However, while the short term forecasts indicate that gas prices will likely abate some before the end of 2008, there is a growing consensus that any relief is likely to be short-lived ... and that gas prices could climb dramatically over the next few years from already painful levels to ones that will cause profound disruptions to the economy.

This situation is having significant ramifications for the world of work. The average commute in the United States is now running at least twenty miles each way, and high real estate prices near city centers have encouraged the development of sleeper communities that are in some cases thirty to forty miles away from where the work itself is. Add into this the increasing congestion due to this urban sprawl funneling workers through highways that were never intended for the capacity, a dramatic falloff in federal and state transportation funding and contentious NIMBY policies that have slowed the development of commuter rail and other mass transit solutions in areas that most needed them, and what emerges are strong pressures to change the way that people work.

One of those changes is coming about due to the recent economic turmoil in the financial and housing sectors, as companies go out of business, merge, or downsize staff due to reduced consumer demand. The effect of this is to put a growing segment of the working population in the situation of having to become shift away from their present career into new ones ... or to become independent contractors.

Another impact is to force employers to move to a four day ten hour (or even four day eight hour) work week, both to cut out the increasing costs of energy (and carbon footprints) and to reduce the burden of transportation costs on the employees that they are keeping. This approach, however, has had fairly limited success, especially for state governments that implemented such a plans (such as Ohio, which recently ended a four day work week trial) ... in many of these cases, the loss of a full day of services had a very real negative impact on many of the people dependent upon those services. Ironically enough, the principle problem with this approach was that the hour before and after the normal eight hour day coincided with the commute time of the very constituents the state was trying to serve.


The Rise of Telework

Yet one of the largest shifts in working that has taken place in the last few years, and the one that ultimately may end up having the greatest overall impact, is the growth of telework. Telework involves employees and contract workers performing their work out of the office - from home, from distributed work centers, from coffee-shops, indeed, from wherever those workers may happen to be at the time.

As the cost of commuting, of commercial real estate and of electrical power have all continued to climb, so too has the attractiveness of having employees telework as a way of both saving costs and reducing resource usage. One effect of the recent credit crunch is that, even though commercial real-estate prices have begun to soften, arranging financing for new office space is becoming much more difficult, forcing companies that had expansionist plans to put them on hold. Traditionally, that meant that job growth (or even just reorganizations) was also put on hold, but telework is opening up the possibilities that you can grow a company without the need to buy, heat, electrify and furnish more real-estate.

As an idea, telework has been around for a while. Indeed, certain professions, such as writers, editors, programmers, accountants, and so forth are natural candidates for teleworking, because their jobs generally require comparatively little interaction with others. In many cases, these workers are also independent consultants, working for themselves or managing very small teams of others that work as subcontractors, and as such tend to have modest requirements for workplaces.

Yet telework has also grown at the upper managerial level of organizations as well. Accessible web portals such as that offered by Salesforce,com, coupled with the increasing migration of working documents to the cloud and the rise of collaboration oriented CMS tools make monitoring and planning considerably easier, and also does something else ... reduce the amount of time spent in face-to-face meetings, while making it possible to parallel task online meetings with other activities (and access to other resources). The need for such meetings will likely never go away completely, but video conferencing software, multi-person instant messaging, webcasts and the ubiquity of video cams can significantly reduce the need for meeting in person for all but the most critical of activities.


Road Bumps on the Virtual Commute

While telework has its advantages, it has, over the years run into a number of frustrating obstacles, both technological and social

One factor has been the need for interaction - businesses are, by definition, group activities, and telework cuts down on the face to face interactions possible. This limitation has been offset to a certain extent by the rise of remote presence software - social business network portals, IM, web-cams, video conferencing, and VOIP/telephony services, among others. The current generation of cloud computing - providing document storage, version control and collaboration services over the Internet - has also served to make it easier for groups of people to work in concert without having to be in the same room (or even on the same continent). Indeed, it can be argued that for the first time the primary limitations to such collaboration is not due to limitations in technology, but social limitations.

These social limitations have certainly slowed the growth of telework, having to do in part with the problems inherent in both managing and being managed remotely. For many older managers, management had more to do with being able to physically determine whether a given worker was in fact in his or her seat working than it did with getting results. Such bench-warming managers, for the most part, are finding themselves increasingly out of work as the ability to manage remote groups (either due to telework or due to outsourcing) has replaced more traditional local group management, and this trend is likely only to accelerate as the number of teleworkers climb.

A second social limitation comes from workers themselves. Telework requires a certain degree of self-starting and responsibility. Ironically, a number of studies, including one performed by Sun in 2007 showed that one of the older stereotypes of teleworkers as people who would tend to do a little work then skip to some other activity, watch TV or surf the web actually proved to be something of a myth - for the most part most teleworkers actually tend to put in longer days working than they would in the office, and would deliberately set up "work rituals" such as getting properly dressed or not eating in the "office" in order to differentiate their work life from their home life. As the number of teleworkers climb the question of whether such dedicated people are the self-selecting exception or the rule will become more apparent.

This particular limitation (and the survey which blew the myth) also showed that one of the biggest incentives for telework is that it provides a way to cut down on the non-essential interactions of work - the coworker who wants to come in and kibbitz about their trip, the noisy distractions from a loud telephone call in the next cubicle, meetings called by anxious managers who themselves had been in back-to-back meetings. Indeed, one result of this survey was to call into question whether in fact the concept that such physical rapport at work is in fact necessary at all. Indeed, there's some evidence that these particular social bonding efforts create "background noise" that makes it harder for workers to actually work.

Moreover, not all jobs (or people) work well in a telework situation, coordination of distributed workers is more complex than when everyone is in the same building, and corporate cultures can place a stigma upon teleworkers that can cause problems with their future careers. Questions of loyalty to the teleworking company can definitely arise, though as telework becomes more heavily embedded in contemporary culture, this can work both ways.

AT&T had one of the more progressive telework policies of contemporary cultures until their recent acquisition by SBC. The SBC management, fearful that telework has made their acquired workforce unmanageable, canceled all telework in the company, much to the anger of its new workforce. As one reader to a Network World story on the article put it wrote, "I'll continue to telework until I am fired. At that point, I am certain I can find a better paying job with a better corporate culture. Way to go AT&T -- let's force all of your talent out the door and replace it with contractors."

Yet the fears that AT&T has are not without merit, especially in areas such as security. Laptops, especially employee owned laptops, are typically used for multiple purposes, and as such the chances of virus infections that can make their way into internal systems rises dramatically. Additionally, many home networks are now built around wireless routers, so the potential for adversaries to pick up on wireless signals certainly exists. Realistically, however, all of these challenges have well developed solutions - from proactive virus software on both computer systems and through servers, the use of dedicated VPNs and the latest generation of WPA2 Enterprise encryption on wireless systems. Most of these systems were developed initially for enterprise level use, but the cost point for introducing them into consumer products have definitely made the argument about technological limitations of security software considerably less of an issue.

On the other hand, most of the security problems that do exist with teleworkers come about due primarily to poor training in security practices or the improper use of software. In general, telework policies should not be undertaken in an ad hoc way - rather, providing technical and security support for teleworkers should be seen as part of a general trend of providing varying levels of access to people outside of the immediate corporate firewall (from teleworkers and independent contractors to vendors, media and community members) that all IT departments should be developing as a matter of course, as one aspect of the increasingly distributed corporation with remarkably fuzzy boundaries.

A final hurdle to getting telework adoption is regulatory. Where does a teleworker actually work? This question has significant implications for states with income taxes. A number of states (most notably New York) have sought to tax the full income of people who work for companies in the state, even if the teleworker in question does not live or even spend most of his or her time in that state, meaning that a person could effectively be double taxed for working with New York companies if their state of residence also has a sales tax. A recent court challenge to the New York law in particular went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the case was turned away without a hearing.


Telework and Agile Development

A more valid concern is that the lack of such social interaction makes it harder for mentoring to occur - that informal "on-the-job" training that is in fact fairly necessary for newer or younger workers. One of the interesting observations coming out of hundreds of hours of distributed open source development is that such mentoring can take place in distributed projects, but is something that a given project manager should generally encourage. Indeed, one of the more critical aspects of "agile" development methodologies is precisely this kind of mentoring - that an experienced programmer should team up with a junior programmer to insure both that the junior programmer understands (and is able to learn from) what he is doing, and to provide a spot check to insure that the quality that the junior programmer is producing is up to spec.

This notion of agile development moving beyond the immediate domain of programming is one that's beginning to manifest in the world of management consulting. Marc Strohlein, Chief Agility Officer at the Outsell consulting services company, recently led a discussion panel at the MarkLogic 2008 conference, discussing applying agile methods to manage people outside of programming- technical writers, marketing people and so forth.

From the panel, organizations that were moving to such agile methodologies, such as the publisher Congressional Reports, indicated that these techniques worked especially well in both coordinating and motivating their fairly broadly distributed work force, including such aspects as keeping deliverables chunked to short iterative cycles, shifting the modality of content development from one of start and stop creation towards one focused on a mindset of continuous maintenance, and the idea of keeping work groups small and structured so that mentoring could occur as a natural process.

This idea was also recently repeated by Robert Lefkowitz, vice president of information technology at Asurion, at the recent OSCON 2008 conference, when he laid out the Lefkowitz Methodology, based upon the work of Roman philosopher Quintillian's Institutes of Oratory, where, in a rather tongue in cheek fashion, he pointed out that continuous maintenance is one of the hallmarks of open source development. Intriguingly, the idea that it was also essential to oratory two thousand years ago hints that in fact this concept is more deeply ingrained in our idea of work and work-flow than we might imagine - and that as such may represent a more "natural" progression of work than the rather artificial one set up to manage 20th century corporations.


Risk Mitigation Through Telework

Put another way, telework should be seen as part of a larger societal shift that's occurring in the work force, driven by the ability and the need to distribute work beyond the immediate confines of a single building, both due to a more distributed workforce and due to the dangers inherent in centralizing communication. Indeed, telework gained a major boost after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and then again after the twin hurricanes of Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and the central gulf coast regions of the US.

Chuck Wilsker, President & CEO of The Telework Coalition, indicated in a recent interview with O'Reilly Media that telework was seen by disaster preparedness officials at both the governmental and corporate level as one of the ways of keeping continuity in an organization going in the presence of the unexpected. By laying down the conditions to insure that work can occur from home or from some other remote location - especially in conjunction with mobile data centers and redundant, geographically disparate systems - during times of crisis, an organization can both complete its primary mission while at the same time providing a way to get the primary systems up and running as quickly as possible. This point was made rather forcefully when Wilsker's wife came in during the interview to let him know that a magnitude 6.4 earthquake had hit Northern Los Angeles.

Beyond this need for disaster preparedness, telework has also emerged as a solution for another problem - the ability to find the talent necessary to complete projects, be that in IT, creative productions, writing or general consulting. Moving people is becoming an increasingly difficult and costly proposition - the collapse of the mortgage markets in particular mean that selling a house in one area and buying one in another area can be time consuming and problematic, especially in areas where house prices have declined significantly leading to a shortage of buyers of older properties on the leaving end and the difficulty of getting mortgages on the arriving end.

The result of this that the people moving will need considerably higher salaries in order to offset the costs involved in moving, and they will be distracted from their jobs for longer periods of time while doing so. Telework in this particular case permits two advantages - it can help transition a person into a job and make them more productive early on, and in some cases it can even serve as a replacement for moving them in the first place. It also gives the company a chance to evaluate a given person without the added expense and time of moving them. Note - this particular situation may be only temporary, though it is likely that uncertainty in the financial markets will persist for many more months if not years.


The Green Tele-Commute

Economic considerations are also driving a rising awareness of "green issues", and here again telework offers some interesting potential. Green computing applies to more than simply manufacturing hardware more efficiently and with less overall cost to the environment. In the aforementioned Sun study, the company took a look at the 56% of the company's workforce that telecommutes at least one day a week and performed energy consumption analyses in order to ask a simple question - was telework actually saving any energy, or was it simply shifting the carbon footprint from the company to its employees.

The results were surprising. Sun's ergonomics people connected P3 International's Kill A Watt meter, a portable power meter that can connect into a workstation, onto both their internal computer systems and the participants home (or mobile) connections. What they discovered was that teleworkers consumed about 64 watts per hour, while their office counterparts consumed more than double, 130 watts per hour, just on their equipment.

Yet the vast benefit came in slashing the commute. The energy costs involved in running office equipment accounted for less than 2% of the total carbon footprint for an employee, while almost all of the rest, 97%, was involved in the commute to and from the office each day. By reducing trips to the office to 2 ½ days a week, a typical employee managed to save 5,400 kilowatt hours per year, according to Kristi McGee, senior director for Sun's Open Work services group.

Similar results were reported by Novell, which has been pushing heavily to promote telework for its employees and recently was a major force behind the decision of the Utah state government to move towards a combination four day work week and telework program.

This has a cascading effect. A recent fire in a power station in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia turned out the lights in much of that city for nearly three days and highlighted how fragile and stressed the power grid currently is even in a comparatively modern city. Telework will help reduce the load on those and similar grids throughout North America and Europe, frees up oil that can be used for electricity generation rather than moving cars, and also insures that even in the event of a power outage in the center of a metropolitan area that work can be accomplished in areas where power didn't go down.


Telework's Future

Telework forces a rethinking of how to manage people, and for some managers (and some companies), this can prove difficult to handle. Yet the momentum is clearly shifting towards teleworkers - according to Wilsker, the percentage of people who telework at least one day a week is now approximately 25% of the total workforce, and that number has been increasing 20-30% every year, with the bulk of those coming from two ends of the demographic spectrum - those in their twenties and early thirties and those close to retirement.

"People nearing retirement value quality of life issues - not spending every day in traffic, being able to set their own hours and establish a more sensible work/life balance makes sense to them. Also, many are already shifting to part time work anyway that can readily be done from home," said Wilsker. "For the younger demographic, these are people who grew up on instant messaging, social portals, wireless networks and 24/7 connectivity. The idea that they have to commute an hour plus each way to an office and work eight hours a day in a cubicle seems absurd to them. As they become the work force, expect the days of the cubicle to become numbered."

This day is coming quickly. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that by 2012, the population of teleworkers (full and part time) will be from 50 million to as much as 100 million, compared to the approximately 30 million teleworkers today, implying that telework will go from 20% of the work force today to roughly 50% by 2012.

The results of this shift may end up being dramatic. In early 2008, Seattle, Washington announced that they were going to be making major changes on I5, the primary interstate highway running through the city, and asked that companies have their workers telecommute during a period of a month. Predictions of major congestion as cars moved off the highway and onto city side-streets materialized only a couple of times over that period - and overall the traffic volume through the city dropped by nearly 20%, with surprisingly little in the way of business disruption for many of the larger office headquarters situation there.

Telework promises to get cars off the road, to make working with increasingly far flung staff and contractors easier, to cut overall corporate and governmental energy costs, to reduce demand on expensive and limited commercial real estate and give to workers considerable more ability to structure their work times to fit their needs rather than the needs of running a company's physical power plant. It provides corporate security by insuring that a disaster or power outage does not significantly disrupt a company's operations, and it provides a valuable tool in recruiting and retaining technical, creative and managerial talent regardless of where they may be located.

As Chuck Wilsker put it, "Telework works. I can think of very few things that benefits both the employer and the employee (in different ways) while still providing such useful environmental and social benefits."

Kurt Cagle is an online editor for O'Reilly Media.


You might also be interested in:


2 Comments

A very nice blog with extensive info on Telecommuting. Good stuff. Certainly, Telecommuting is the low lying fruit for so many Managements to curtail the cost to the comapany.

The best resource for teleworking (web conferencing) tools is the top ten report on http://www.webconferencingcouncil.com. They have a whitepaper you can download on the left handside for top ten vendors in 2009, which is REALLY helpful in sorting out the top vendors. Their top vendor listed in the whitepaper is VIA3 from www.viack.com

Popular Topics

Archives

Or, visit our complete archives.

Recommended for You

Got a Question?