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?

    • Sean Hernandez
    • EmergentAsia Inc.

    A successful implementation of telecommuting depends on several factors, including:

    • Job type

    • Skill level

    • Personality

    • Organizational culture

    Not every person of every job type can or would opt to telecommute. The effectiveness would depend on where the person is in terms of the learning curve of a particular skill. If the person is an expert in executing a particular task, minimal or no interaction with a peer or mentor would be needed. If a person is at the beginning of the learning curve, a lot of interaction between mentor and student would be needed. Unless technology, economics, and preferences reach a point where we can videoconference or dataconference without "friction" (technological, economic, and psychological), this will not change.

    As for the business opportunities, there are some in several categories, including:

    • Technological Infrastructure

    • Software

    • Training/consulting services

    One of the really promising developments in the software category is the emergence of peer-to-peer technology. This, coupled with upgrades in technological infrastructure and its effective adaptation and deployment over a sizeable population will enable us to cross the chasm.

    • Jack Downey
    • President, Cascada Group

    Humans are social animals who learn from each other; we embrace the social experience. There is nothing social about speaking to a star-shaped speaker in the middle of a conference table or watching "big brother" images on a teleconference screen. We learn best by close contact—witness the success of mentoring programs, small class sizes and intensive learning experiences. Technology robs us of the close contact we seek and are reinforced by in the learning cycle.

    • Loretta L Donovan
    • Director, Corporate Learning & Development, ClientSoft, Inc.

    Knowledge transfer and the development of expertise may be in peril with virtual and remote management practices, but solutions are within reach. Technologies to collaborate, problem solve, and advise in real-time or asynchronously through web-based systems are becoming increasingly available at varied costs, making them more viable. What is still most lacking, however, is the corporate leadership that acknowledges that there must be time set aside for these activities. There is a tacit assumption that if employees are not working face-to-face, then there is no need to schedule these informational activities and ultimately no time is invested.

    • Alan Carswell (MBA '82)
    • Director MIS Program, University of Maryland, University College

    One main characteristic of tacit knowledge transfer is that it's unplanned. I'm a telecommuter, but I visit my office once or twice a week. There are many occasions where unplanned face to face contact results in learning something new. Last time I was in the office, two other colleagues and I shared opinions about how using certain words in email can trigger negative reactions from the recipient. This impromptu meeting never would have happened had we not run into each other at the same place, at the same time.

    The current state of information technology doesn't support such spontaneity. Electronic contacts (email, videoconferencing, even the telephone) require some prior decision to initiate the contact. In the virtual world, you don't just "run into someone." At least not yet.

    The flip side of unplanned contact is that there is a lot of such contact that has no purpose. There are times when I need quiet time to devote mental energy to a task. I found it difficult to do with unplanned contacts, such as someone wandering into my office to shoot the breeze. For such times, telecommuting has been a godsend for me.

    • Anonymous

    There is a tremendous feeling of disconnect. I do miss the interaction and participation in team projects.

    My new manager—who took the position in January—has only called once to discuss my activities. (The arrangement was a weekly contact to keep me up-to-date on current issues.)

    When onsite, I participated in various projects—some strategic—and that interaction is missing with telecommuting.

    I believe I have a strong sense of professional ethics, but the lack of contact occasionally impacts my motivation to maintain the same standards of output.

    On the positive side, I do enjoy having some professional activity, especially something that offers so much flexibility:

    • I work when it's convenient and in a great environment—my study.

    • I have calls from people involved in interesting projects and can participate remotely as the "go to" person.

    • I can travel with my husband and log on from anywhere in the U.S., which is also a great convenience.

    In many ways telecommuting allows me to "have my cake . . ." It's just not as much fun when you're not at the party.

    • Eleanor Latimer
    • Director of Business Strategy and Development, MedBiquitous Services

    I agree with those who say there are limits to telecommuting. I'm part of a small team building a new company and the more face time we have with each other the more we bond, find past experiences to share that are valuable to building our culture, and begin the process of building our team. Some of us commute from half way across the country each week, bringing our unique skillsets to our new endeavor. Most of us work at least one day per week at home, and email and conference calls make that acceptable. Yet the time we spend together, working on problems face to face and just sharing time is the most valuable for building our organization.

    • Scott Lichtman
    • Owner, vITaltouch Consulting

    Having been an independent consultant for several months now, I am seeing some of the downsides of home-working/ telecommunicating that James speaks of. The antidotes for me have been (1) networking in person at least two times per week (not by phone) at professional events or informal lunches that also serve as business development work; (2) having additional face-to-face activities such as personal classes or community work; and (3) taking a more disciplined approach to sleep, diet, and exercise. Physical and mental health are clearly connected on a daily basis for me.

    The above suggests that the tacit knowledge worker may be among the better types suited for telecommuting/home office. This is reinforced by findings from 'distributed software development' projects in which geographically-dispersed workers are more productive precisely because they have to clearly agree upfront, and document in writing, their goals and plans to coordinate.

    The bigger challenge I'm grappling with is this: in a tough economy, is the effort required to generate new business for an independent consultant worth the rewards of varied work and higher compensation per hour? It depends on the ability of the consultant to generate work, of
    course...which I'm looking forward to happening as a result of early project successes and word of mouth.

    • Ripton Whyte
    • Specialist, Verizon Network Operations

    Telecommuting is most efficient within a staff organization. Although I do not necessarily agree with a five-day-a-week telecommuting schedule because it can create that "losing touch" feeling, when telecommuting is used, it can be a good antidote to high real estate costs, distractions, and high commuter expenses, and—most of all—can lead to peace of mind.

    • Bill Korn
    • President and COO, Telelogue

    I have managed telecommuters for years, at large enterprises and small. Some of my most productive, effective and satisfied employees have been telecommuters.

    I think there are five factors which must all be present for telecommuting to be successful for both the employee and the company.

    1. The job needs to be one that does not necessitate constant interaction with peers.

    2. The individual needs to be mature enough to work unsupervised—and to know when to "go home" and leave his or her email and unfinished work behind.

    3. The employee and supervisor must establish a regular communication pattern, including regular telephone calls, and preferably regular in-person contact (unless the telecommuter is a long plane ride away).

    4. There needs to be a large degree of trust on both sides: you manage the results and the output but don't try to measure the hours worked or the input.

    5. There needs to be people with whom the telecommuter can chat during the day, both to answer questions and for a little social interaction.

    I once had a Financial Planner 3,000 miles away who worked successfully on a project for 3 months before I ever met him in person. (He came well recommended, and I hired him after a phone interview.) I called him regularly on my drive home from work. He was responsive, enthusiastic, got more accomplished than his predecessor who spent 10 hours a day in the office, and never let me down when I needed something for a deadline. I, in turn, treated him with respect, encouraged him to take a few hours off when he'd spent much of the previous night finishing a project, and was comfortable letting him manage his own hours.

    Of course, these criteria are also the keys to any successful employee relationship, whether the person is telecommuting or not. So I guess there is no magic in telecommuting.

    • Joachim Klehe
    • Data Product Development, SBC Communications, Inc.

    The nature of my work is such that it all can be done via telephone and email. I go into the office regularly to maintain connection to the informal information transfer that occurs among my colleagues in hallway conversations and casual encounters in each other's cubicles, most of which is not transmitted in the formal communiqués from senior management.

    I optimize the use of technology by forwarding my desk phone to my cell phone when I work from home so that I almost always am able to conduct business in real time with my widely dispersed project teams. I go into the office Monday through Thursday from 6 AM until about Noon, and then remain available via email and my cell phone for the remainder of the business day. Balancing "face time" in the office with smart use of technical tools have made me more productive yet still plugged into the informal office network that I would otherwise miss if I worked exclusively from home.

    I also am disciplined enough to shut down the computer and turn off the cell phone at the end of the business day without exception.