Is telecommuting facing a new oil crisis?

Over the past few months the global energy situation has made some significant shifts. One of the potentially most far reaching of these is the drop in oil prices. Last Thursday, after Opec decided to continue pumping its oil at the same rate as it had been doing, oil prices hit a four-year low of just over $71 per barrel. The reason is that the availability of oil exceeds the demand for it; Economics 101. America’s greatly increased oil production, largely from shale, is clearly distorting the market by adding to that surplus availability. Our previous forecasts of hitting the absolute peak of oil production have to be modified.

For some stakeholders in energy this situation is an oil bonanza; for others it is an oil crisis. For commuters worldwide the lower price at the gas pump is a gift, an incentive to buy a new gas guzzler rather than a hybrid or an electric car, to increase the rate of global warming. For those of us trying to persuade people to telecommute this situation feels like a new oil crisis. High oil prices supposedly help encourage individuals to  telecommute. Will low oil prices act to discourage telecommuting? Here is some history.

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The focus factor vs. the office

What is telework’s central secret? Its ability to enhance the  level of teleworkers’ focus on their work. This both increases worker productivity and enhances their job satisfaction. Why? Because many, if not most, contemporary office environments are definitely not conducive to the level of focus required for work to be done efficiently and effectively. They suffer from low focus factors.

Here’s an example. Suppose you arrive at your downtown office after an “exciting” commute to work. You grab your first coffee, sit at your desk, try to relax for a few minutes then start to focus on today’s first task. Just as you’re getting into it one of your office mates wanders by and starts talking about last night’s ball game. You try to look absorbed but it doesn’t work to fend off your colleague. After a few more minutes of this she wanders off and you try to get back to your mindset before the interruption began. Cogitatio interrupto.

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A no-net-cost global warming fight?

The news is trickling in: it’s possible to fight global warming without wrecking the economy; the savings might even outweigh the expenses.  A no-net-cost global warming fight is possible if we all get to work at it. There are costs, of course, but the evidence is growing that the benefits of decreasing global warming may outweigh them. It’s possible that the net costs may be zero to negative, making the global warming fight free or even a winner.

Here’s some of the evidence.  The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has just released a report (The New Climate Economy) giving the big picture. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has written about that report and another from the International Monetary Fund with supporting material. A quick glance shows that the task of quickly reducing global warming is formidable — but doable. The doing part of it is what is crucial.

As I have written in the past, telework/telecommuting is one of the weapons to fight global warming. Continue reading

It’s the Management, stupid!

Every now and then an article appears in a media outlet decrying teleworking because of the alleged propensity of teleworkers to goof off instead of doing actual work. For example, the Washington Post recently published an article about the claimed gallivanting of Patent and Trademark Office teleworkers. The article was based on a report by the Department of Commerce’s Inspector General that several PTO employees were collecting for teleworking time when they weren’t really working. Quickly that intrepid California Congressman Darryl Issa demanded an investigation of the supposed malfeasance.

Next came an article in Nextgov, titled Patent Office Telework Scandal Not Really About Telework, claiming that it was all a case of mistaken attribution. Specifically:

Revelations of unprofessional behavior within the Patent and Trademark Office’s award-winning work-from-home program have been described as “telework abuses” by investigators and lawmakers — despite a lack of details specifically linking the problems to telework, mobile work advocates say.

They were abuses, sure. Fundamentally telework-related? Not so much, they say.

Surprise, surprise! It’s the Management, stupid, not the telework that’s the problem!

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Assimilation Valley: signs of aging?

That vaunted fount of innovation, the Silicon Valley, may be showing signs of aging. It is beginning to resemble the history of industrial development before the information age. Some of the symptoms are: growing larger companies by gobbling up smaller ones; attempting to control markets by stifling startups (or by engulfing them as in the prior case); and developing borg-like headquarters facilities aimed at exerting almost total control over the lives of their employees. From the Company store to the company town. From Silicon Valley to Assimilation Valley.

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Young scientists need telework, not travel

The World View page in the 19 June 2014 Nature is titled: “Uprooting researchers can drive them out of science.” A key statement in the article by Russell Garwood of the University of Manchester, UK, is:

If they wish, researchers can now communicate more often, and just as easily, with colleagues in a different time zone than with those in the next office.

That’s the problem. The management techniques of science were developed in the time when scientists necessarily worked together in the same laboratory. Although the technology has changed, apparently the management attitudes have not.

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Resurrecting the American space program

Back in my days as a rocket scientist I spent most of my time developing ways for the United States and its allies to keep track of the military activities of the Soviet Union. Although I haven’t been in the outer space business since the early 1970s I was still shocked by some recent events resulting from, or revealed by, the goings-on in the Ukraine. It seems that core elements of the American space program are not under American control.

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How many telecommuters are there now?

Those who wish to find an unimpeachable estimate of the telecommuters in the US these days have a problem. For example, my own forecast of the number of US teleworkers (mostly telecommuters) in the US at the end of 2014 says that they will constitute 30% of the workforce (40+ million teleworkers) and account for reducing vehicle travel by 140 billion miles over what would happen without telecommuting. On the other hand, the National Study of Employers run by the Family and Work Institute claims that “today more employers are providing occasional telecommuting (67%) for at least some employees than in 2008 (50%).” On the third hand, Top Management Degrees claims that there will be 3.9 million teleworkers in the US by 2016 — an order of magnitude less than my forecast for 2014.

So which, if any, of these estimates is right? The answer is: it depends.

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Telework and network neutrality

There is a major politico-economic tug of war going on these days. It is between those who want the internet to work as it has been for the last few decades and those who want to have the internet provide preferential treatment to certain customers. This may sound like an abstruse issue but it’s not. In particular it  may decrease your ability to telework in the future.

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Telework and organizational culture

What are the relationships between telework and organizational culture? Here is the Wikipedia definition of organizational culture:

the behavior of humans who are part of an organization and the meanings that the people attach to their actions. Culture includes the organization values, visions, norms, working language, systems, symbols, beliefs and habits. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving, and even thinking and feeling. Organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. 

One of the persistent questions I get about the impacts of telework is its effect on organizational culture. The fear is frequently expressed by the management of organizations considering adopting teleworking that somehow the teleworkers will become a sort of alien presence in their organizations. They fear that the teleworkers will be unable to adapt to the organizational culture and therefore will turn out to be a drag rather than an improvement to the organization’s operations and success. Continue reading