Telework in a time of disasters

For years I have been urging organizations to adopt telework if only as a quick response in times of disaster. Now we are in time of two major disasters: one a pandemic, the other an unwarranted invasion. The first disaster provoked a massive increase in teleworking globally. The second disaster may provoke a new form of teleworking: a teleinsurgency.

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Telework, telecommuting, Remote work; Again What’s the difference?

Judging from the comments I get, there is still a fair amount of confusion as to what, exactly, are the definitions of teleworking, telecommuting and remote working? My answers go into some detail but, first, here are my general definitions:

  • Teleworking: ANY form of substitution of information technologies (such as telecommunications and/or computers) for normal work-related travel; moving the work to the workers instead of moving the workers to work.
  • Telecommuting: Periodic work out of the principal office, one or more days per week, either at home, a client’s site, or in a telework center; the partial or total substitution of information technologies for the commute to work. The emphasis here is on reduction or elimination of the daily commute to and from the workplace. Telecommuting is a form of teleworking. Telemedicine is another form of telework except the emphasis is on the type of work performed rather than the trip savings.
  • Remote working: Another popular name for teleworking. I personally dislike the term because of the the possible inference that the workers are somehow disengaged from their work rather than simply working at a distance from the principal workplace.
  • Hybrid working: The split between teleworking and traditional office working in which X days per week, on average, are spent teleworking and the rest in the traditional office. Our previous research shows that X tends to hover between 2 and 3. This form has implications on the design of the formerly traditional office. But that’s the subject of a future blog post.

Those are the quick definitions. Now here are some details.

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the telecommuting hybrid takes shape

Thanks to Covid, widespread telecommuting emerged in 2020; its more mature form, the telecommuting hybrid, has started to take shape. In early 2020 the situation was that basically all office workers were forced to work from home essentially full time. Offices, with their threat of Covid contamination, were avoided by all but the most stalwart office hermits.

Dilemmas

There are at least two main problems with this situation. First, many telecommuters did not have home environments suitable for full-time telecommuting. Second, most people enjoy and look forward to some face-to-face interaction with their colleagues; video conferencing does not quite satisfy that desire. As a result the newly hatched telecommuters suffered various forms of stress and anomie.

At the other end of the working relationship, managers found that the old, traditional ways of running things didn’t work nearly as well when their employees were geographically dispersed. Since many managers, upon becoming managers, are given little training on management techniques, their natural response has been to use the management-by-walking-around method. Clearly, this doesn’t work with telecommuting and its management-by-results philosophy.

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two transitions are happening globally

It’s that time of year when it’s useful to look back on what has been accomplished and consider what may lie ahead. In particular, it’s time to discuss the progress of two important transitions related to climate change: COP26 and teleworking.

COP26

The 26th annual United Nations Conference of the Parties, recently held in Glasgow, Scotland, was a potpourri of hopes realized and crushed. For many attendees, the hope that finally, finally some concrete action on climate change would happen turned into more frustration. There was, at least, a general agreement among the attending countries to eliminate methane production by the late 2020s, although Indonesia had second thoughts about its agreement.

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The climate countdown continues

On 31 October 2021 COP26 begins in Glasgow. Hopefully, COP26 will act as an inflection point in the efforts to decrease global warming. With its success the climate countdown will continue. Hopefully, more nations will sign on and make quantitative commitments to end their emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Otherwise, greenhouse gases will continue to flow, the air will become warmer, destructive weather events will become more frequent and intense and humanity will increase fragmenting. All because Mother Nature will adapt to our mischief whether we like it or not. The earth will survive whether or not we do.

Here are some thoughts about the situation.

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Telework and Terrorism revisited

Almost twenty years ago I wrote a page on the JALA website about the impacts of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Yet terrorism is just one of many sources of disaster that telework could have subdued.

Twenty years later my message is the same as it was then. The difference is that not much happened after that first message while plenty happened after the recent — and continuing — pandemic disaster. It clearly took something greater than the mere destruction of the twin towers in order to get the world’s attention. Telework is clearly a solution, at least in part, to many types of disaster.

We now have much greater set of impending disasters, that of climate change, that threaten to uproot many of our fondest customs and practices, even our lives. Telework is likely to be an element of the means for averting that threat.

Better late than never?

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The price of procrastination

Months ago I wrote a piece about the seemingly agonizing pace at which we’re combatting climate change. It still seems agonizing. Here is an explanation of why and how fast we need to change, as well as some positive steps we call all take to reduce global warming.

My main message is: procrastination hurts. The more we delay taking active measures against global warming, the more it will cost us when we finally start. There are two reasons for this. First, as long as we do nothing, or not enough, the level of CO2 will keep increasing and the atmosphere will continue warming. Second, since we’re working against a climate change deadline, the rate at which we need to stop emitting CO2 must increase. The recent heatwaves in the Western US and Northern Europe, as well as the recent hurricane Ida, are clear examples of why these estimates may be too conservative.

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Slowly, slowly, then all of a sudden!

In the old days, pre-Covid, I used to write about telework as a tide coming slowly in. An inch at a time, unlike Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave. But with the advent of Covid the telework tide turned into a tsunami, seemingly sweeping all else before it. Now that the tsunami is slowly receding it’s time to review its impacts and their future.

Its suddenness

The Covid pandemic suddenly forced many organizations to become telecommuter-dominant early in 2020. Consequently, the majority of the employees at all levels of the organizations were forced, almost overnight, to work at home, mostly with no prior training or other preparation. I was conflicted at the time, elated that a massive, global demonstration of teleworking had been started, but worried that the lack of training and pre-planning would produce many organizational disasters.

Fortunately, most of those instant, tsunami-induced conversions to telecommuting worked well after a few days or weeks of frantic adjustment. The organizations — and employees — adjusted. Productivity rose. Many operating costs were reduced or eliminated. The pandemic was deflected if not avoided. Business operations normalized, at least when viewed from a distance. The “bottom line” improved rather than crashed.

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Climate change: Promises, promises, promises

Recently President Joe Biden chaired a virtual international conference on climate change that included many of the world’s leaders. The conference gained a number of new or updated promises by nations, including major emitters like China, Europe and the US, to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2030. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that these ventures are still mostly promises. Actual major reductions in GHGs have yet to be seen. The Covid-induced global slowdowns in transportation and other forms of energy consumption, big as they were, were still largely masked by emissions elsewhere. For example, China added several coal-burning power plants to its active inventory in 2020. The result is that growth in GHG emissions today is still largely unchecked. Furthermore, for each year the promises are unfulfilled the required rate of decrease of GHGs in following years goes up if we are to meet the promised goals.

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Telework 2021: Who, what, when and where

Now that many of us have had at least a year of experience with teleworking (or many of its synonyms) it is time to take stock of the possibilities for the near future. Who will the future teleworkers be, what will they be doing, when will they be teleworking and where will they be doing it? The successes, and tribulations, of the past year give us some clues to each of those possibilities.

Who

Fundamentally, teleworkers are people whose jobs are at least partially location-independent. Currently that’s roughly half to three-fifths of the workforce in developed countries; information workers. Some information workers still are restricted to live near and work in a primary location but technology is constantly eroding that requirement. Those restrictions are imposed by such things as access to fixed or very expensive equipment or facilities, security considerations or group interaction requirements. Currently that leaves more than 40% of the workforce as potential active teleworkers. As technology improves, the proportion of telework-eligible workers grows.

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