• 02 Apr 2001
  • What Do You Think?

Telecommuting: Dangerous to Health?

by James Heskett

Summing Up

Telecommuting: Having Our Cake…But Not at the Party?

While telecommuters reading this column want to see telecommuting work, they are equally clear that we have a way to go before we see the full benefits and proper use of the concept. Sean Hernandez suggests that whether or not telecommuting is "dangerous to health"—the title of the column that prompted these responses—depends on several factors ranging from organizational culture and job type to skill level and personality. Eleanor Latimer adds another factor, the age of the organization. She points out that "as part of a small team building a new company ... the time we spend together (as opposed to the day per week that she and her colleagues telecommute) ... is the most valuable."

Jack Downey makes the case for the doubters: "Humans are social animals who learn from each other…Technology robs us of the close contact we seek, and are reinforced by, in the learning cycle." But respondents who telecommute don't see it that clearly.

Alan Carswell points out that: "One main characteristic of tacit knowledge transfer is that it's unplanned. In the virtual world, you don't just 'run into someone.' At least not yet." But he also described situations in which unplanned contacts interrupt needed quiet time at the office. "For such times, telecommuting has been a godsend for me." Ripton Whyte's comment was typical of several. In his opinion, overdoing telecommuting can create the feeling of "losing touch," but when used judiciously, it can "lead to peace of mind."

In addition to determining the role and timing of telecommuting, respondents provided advice for supervisors and telecommuters alike. While noting that the technology needed for successful telecommuting is now within reach, Loretta Donovan reminds us that "what is still most lacking ... is the corporate leadership that acknowledges that there must be time set aside for [collaboration, problem solving, and real-time advising] activities." Further, supervisors must set expectations for and maintain regular contact with their telecommuters. Those who telecommute extensively point out the need for, in Scott Lichtman's words, "networking in person at least two times per week, having other face-to-face activities, and ... taking a more disciplined approach to sleep, diet, and exercise."

Clearly, telecommuting, according to those who practice it, is a work in progress. As one telecommuter's bittersweet comment put it, "In many ways telecommuting allows me to "have my cake ... It's just not as much fun when you're not at the party." Can it, however, be organized to capture the advantages of both face-to-face and electronic contact? And does the peace of mind from telecommuting enhance the learning that takes place when humans do occasionally meet? What do you think?

Original Article

The benefits of telecommuting have been widely heralded. Clearly, it has enabled millions to participate in the paid workforce who otherwise would be constrained by location and disruptive commitments. But now we are beginning to see a backlash in the form of a migration of large numbers of telecommuters professing loneliness and a desire to get reconnected back to something more "social" than a home office.

Organizations too have benefited from the telecommuting phenomenon, increasing their ability to hire scarce talent that otherwise would be out of reach. But are there costs associated with telecommuting that may in some cases be greater than the benefits? Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak suggest in their book, Working Knowledge, that such costs may exist, particularly in organizations relying heavily on the transfer of tacit knowledge — knowledge that is "not teachable, not articulated, not observable in use, rich, complex, and undocumented." They describe a failed plan to put tunnelers for the Big Dig in Boston in touch with counterparts in New Zealand who had developed new techniques for tunneling. The plan was to use all of the new and old techniques of telecommuting. Finally, they gave up and spent the money to fly the New Zealanders to Boston to transfer their tacit knowledge in person.

John Seely Brown, former head of Xerox's famous Palo Alto Research Center, describes much of this phenomenon in his book, The Social Life of Information. In trying to develop a base of information about how Xerox machines were really fixed, Xerox brought in an organizational consultant and anthropologist who found, among other things, that some of Xerox's service representatives' most productive time was spent in telling stories (leaking knowledge) over breakfast each day about their experiences with idiosyncratic copiers for which no repair manual was of any help. This has led to subsequent efforts to develop organizations that are "leaky" when it comes to knowledge that needs to be shared and simultaneously "sticky" concerning highly proprietary knowledge, a tough task by any standard.

What does all of this say about the role of technology in knowledge transfer? Does it have its limits? And what does it say about the future of telecommuting, one of the great workplace "movements" in recent years? Have we seen its peak? Or will "tacit" knowledge workers be excluded from using it? Dilemmas like this usually contain the seeds of great business opportunity. In this case, what are they? What do you think?