The case for working at home

We have the technology for telecommuting right now -- but we don't have the management for it yet. That won't come until corporate America realizes how much it really costs to have some poor schmo driving to work every day.

As I write this, we're more than a month into the real 21st century. I'm surrounded by the evidence of advancing technology: several computers -- all of them faster and more powerful than the mainframe I used at college 25 years ago. A speedy DSL link. More disk space than I can shake a floppy at. My office has two real windows and a door that closes. It's private, it's quiet, close to the bathroom, and the food. Why would I ever want to leave? Well, because sooner or later, I have to go to work.

You know "work" -- that place with the drab shoulder-high cubicles, sometimes shared with another warm body, the heavily loaded T1 line serving hundreds or thousands of users, the computer that's no longer better -- and maybe worse -- than the one you own. That place located at least an hour's drive from your home, no matter how close it is according to the map?

The work paradigm has not kept up with the times. Most places still require your physical presence every day, even when your virtual presence can accomplish more work, faster and with less stress. What is keeping this 19th-century practice alive?

In a word, it's laziness. Companies are run by managers, who were trained by older managers, who learned from still older managers, and so on, all the way back to the 19th century and beyond. Management, even in this speedy dot-com world, continues to work with 19th-century efficiency using mostly 19th-century methods.

That will change. It has taken longer than I expected, but then, I'm a techie, and all this has been obvious to me for years. But sooner or later, some manager not quite so steeped in the 19th century is going to wake up and smell the money. For, indeed, money is going to drive the change.

It used to be that we had to go to the office because that was the only way work could get done. We had to get the labor and materials together, and moving the labor was usually easier than moving the materials. In our information economy, that situation changed several years ago. But management hasn't figured that out yet. So we continue to build or adapt office space, with computers, communication lines, cubicles, parking lots, bathrooms, power panels, receptionists, office furniture, cafeterias -- all the endless minutia of the modern office environment.

And what do we get for that outlay? Almost three-quarters of all the air pollution caused by travel in this country can be laid right at the door of the daily commuter. We get to have pre-stressed people polluting the air every day to come in and use equipment that is often inferior to what they have at home, in an office environment that is less comfortable and less convenient than the one at home, to work on stuff they could just as well do at home. And we spend huge bucks to do it!

We are talking about one of the largest and least flexible of corporate expenses here: overhead. Think about that word, overhead. It quite literally refers to the corporate roof over your head, the chair you sit in, the computers and equipment you use, the bandwidth you use, and so forth -- on average it nearly doubles the cost of employee salaries. Make no mistake, one reason why companies start sending the layoff notices in hard times is not so much the salaries as the overhead.

Yet in our modern information economy, almost all of that overhead duplicates services and equipment the workers have already provided for themselves at home! Space? The spare bedroom. Communication? DSL is $40 a month. Computers? A decent computer costs a couple grand, and most people have one already. Power? There already. Food? In the kitchen. Why make 'em drive? What does it give anyone other than an opportunity to spend money on overhead -- stuff that, by definition, provides no value to the stockholders?

Having your work force at home clearly offers some staggering advantages. The cost of each employee can literally be cut by nearly half. And the employees like it! They look for companies that do that. Imagine being able to work a totally flexible schedule, to be there for the repairman to fix the stove or the delivery guy to bring the package, and still be able to work! To be able to perhaps eliminate one of the family cars, to save the out-of-pocket lunches, or the nuisance of bringing bagged ones. To be able to use your own support environment!

Imagine going to work without a single incident of road rage. Imagine being productive when you would otherwise be commuting. (Even splitting the difference gives employers a free hour of work every day!) How many employees are going to drive back to the office after dinner? Fewer by far, I'll bet, than the number of home workers who will put in an extra hour after the kids are in bed. And when the "Ah-ha!" insight hits at 2 a.m., something can actually be done about it instead of just letting it be forgotten.

It's not just the recurring expenses: You can hire from a worldwide talent pool -- with no relocation costs! And imagine what might happen to your health insurance rates when the insurance company realizes your risks are much lower than those for companies that require people to come to work and share their germs. "Sick" or "personal" days may still be productive, as many people use sick days not because they are too sick to sit at a desk and type but because they are too sick to drive in traffic.

Working at home does require a measure of discipline. It requires people to maintain a home office. Yet, many people who work at home discover that discipline isn't so difficult to come by. Self-motivated types are definitely needed -- but with the whole world to hire from and with no relocation costs, they're not hard to find. You must be able to communicate what you need clearly in email, otherwise those self-motivated types may busy themselves doing something that, while useful perhaps, might not be what you want. You must learn how to listen to people, without relying on facial expressions and body language. It will be very worthwhile for managers to unlearn the lazy habits of the past.

Currently, many companies with at-home employees still provide the machines and the communication, but this is much less important than it was even a few years ago, and will soon be totally unnecessary -- even undesirable. Who has space for another computer? Soon the cost of having an employee can drop to salary, benefits, and just enough overhead to pay for the clever managers who figured all this out. With your work force spread around the country, or even the world, you will no longer be vulnerable to local problems, such as rolling blackouts (just to pick one example from the top of my head). The salaries you pay are now determined by the job markets where your employees are, not where your corporate offices are (how much does a two-bedroom starter home in Silicon Valley cost again?).

This thought might make management see the light: How would they like to compete against a company that pays half what they do for their work force?

If you're still not convinced, consider this (and this has to happen sooner or later): The government will figure out that one quick fix for air pollution problems in urban areas is to stop people from commuting unless they truly have to. Bureaucrats and elected officials can reduce wear and tear on the power grid by dispersing workers over a wider area and eliminating office building power drains. They can reduce wear and tear on roads and bridges, and even on the nerves of their constituents. And it will dawn on them to slap a hefty pollution tax on companies that unnecessarily continue to operate in the old-fashioned way.

In the future, information workers will work from home, where it is handy to keep an eye on the kids, work early in the morning or very late at night, or on weekends, and communicate by email or video messages. They can do twice the amount of work at half the price, and prefer to have it that way. And there will be a new shakeout in the dot-com world. Let's hope it happens soon.

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