Telework versus transportation: for the past four decades much of my work on telework and its telecommuting subset has been on demonstrating the relative advantages and disadvantages of those two. It all started in the early 1970s when I got fed up with wasting my time sitting in traffic twice, or more, daily. The commute to and from work was a drag.
Then came the proverbial lightbulb! If what I’m doing at work simply requires a phone (remember, this was in the dark ages of computing) and a desk, why do I have to fight traffic for more than an hour every day to do it? Why not do it from home (Starbucks hadn’t been invented yet either)?
Since then a growing number of people and organizations have come to the same conclusion, fortified by the evidence that telework and telecommuting are good for business. There are now tens of millions of teleworkers worldwide and the number continues to grow.
So now what?
Well, my first objective when I started research on telework was to see if it was at all feasible in the real world as opposed to in my imagination. So we started testing it in a real company in Los Angeles; it worked better than we expected even with 1973 technology (the participants worked in “satellite” offices rather than at home).
But technology wasn’t enough. The problem of organizational acceptance soon reared its head. In fact we’ve spent most of the last 40+ years sorting out and solving the organizational issues, many of which involve quality of communication and levels of trust. Recent examples of such organizational failures include Yahoo and IBM. The motivation in both cases was to increase the organization’s ability to cope with changes in the marketplace by bringing everyone together all the time. This, for all the reasons we’ve talked about before, is not likely to end well for all concerned.
So the central issue still exists, with some more modern complications: how can we maintain a viable society and functioning economy under conditions of climate change and the enormous waste of human potential and energy caused by going from here to there and back again? Can we somehow tweak organizational viability by rearranging things again? Is there some sort of technological innovation that might help this?
Think self-driving cars. Maybe.
In principle you’d be able to telecommute while also transporting yourself to an office somewhere, leaving the navigation issues to the robots. So the traffic congestion (intercommunicating smart cars might also reduce congestion) wouldn’t intrude on your thoughts. Of course, if all the current teleworkers were to return to the daily commute, traffic congestion might get even worse — even with cooperating smart cars. And those renewed commuters would still be using more energy than they would by continuing to telework.
In any case the battle between commuting, telecommuting and the requirements of employers will continue, although possibly with some new weapons. Yet we still have to keep refining tele-optimality: under what conditions does one have to be in a specific location in order to work successfully?