Traffic in Atlanta seems to be getting worse by the day. One year ago it would take a half hour to get to the office from home. It still meant leaving the house at 6:30am in order to beat the morning rush hour. In the space of one year the commute time has increased from thirty to forty five minutes. That's a 50% increase in the course of just a single year. I'm now considering leaving the house at 6:15am so that I can be in the office by 7:00am. So what does this all have to do with the IT industry? We have to aggresively make the move toward telecommuting!

As I've written before, we're seeing a revolution in internet access from the home. With ADSL and cable modem, individuals often have speedier access from home than they do at the office. Computers have become commodity items with emminently capable machines available for $500 and less. Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology permits secure tunneling of sensitive corporate data over the internet. All the pieces are in place and yet we aren't witnessing the wholesale movement of companies to embrace the telecommuting option. Why is that?

In large cities across North America, traffic congestion is becoming a serious impediment to productivity. Many people are spending as much as four hours per day commuting. That works out to 20 hours a week of wasted time! Multiply that by 50 weeks and you realize that these people are losing 1000 hours a year. If we could tap just 50% of that time, productivity gains would be enormous. The other 50% would permit people to spend more time with their families and enjoy a higher quality of life. Imagine getting the equivalent of three weeks of 24x7 time back to yourself.

Commercial real-estate in prime locations is expensive. The traditional business model more or less required an imposing edifice in a prime downtown location. That such real-estate was costly was not a great consideration when compared with the associated cachet. The cubicle farm model was adopted by many companies as a mechanism for parking as many bodies as possible in a fixed amount of space. Lack of privacy, high levels of ambient noise and cramped workspaces were the inevitable result. Why do we continue to tolerate such an out-dated model?

While we haven't yet achieved the goal of the paperless office, more and more business-to-business transactions are taking place electronically. Electronic mail and workgroup software packages such as Lotus Notes, along with the ubiquitous telephone, allow geographically dispersed people to cooperate on projects. So why does management still insist on people spending an increasing amount of time commuting only to spend the day in a cramped cubicle?

One of the early adopters of the emerging technologies was American Express. Significant productivity gains were seen as a result of having a certain class of agents working from home. You can read more here but you can also find a vast amount of additional material on the 'net. Just use the terms "american", "express" and "telecommuting" in your favorite search engine. Much has been written about this experience since it was one of the first large-scale implementations of telecommuting. The fact that it was so successful seems to have had little impact on other companies, unfortunately.

In another throwback to the past, it appears that many managers have their egos tied to the number of direct reports they have, the amount of space their people occupy and the size of their budget. It seems that their perceived importance is predicated on physical, tangiable assets. This is more than disappointing; it's a travesty. If you could give your people more time at home, thus improving their quality of life, and yet obtain increases in productivity at the same time, why wouldn't you champion the cause? This is the area of greatest challenge over the next year or so.

I believe that most people could be far more productive if they were permitted to work from a home office. No more having to take trips to grab a quick smoke, a cup of coffee or a soda. You would be able to wear what you want or even nothing at all. The hours of work would be flexible to a large degree. There will always be the scheduled conference calls, but whether you're the kind of person who likes to wake up at 5am or 10am, it shouldn't matter as long as the work gets done.

Given all the advantages associated with telecommuting, I think that companies will have little choice but to embrace the concept. Not everyone will be happy and there will always be people who need the structured work environment. It's going to require some adjustment on the part of everyone, but the benefits vastly outweigh the minor inconveniences. The change is not going to occur overnight but we all owe it to ourselves to hasten the inevitable along.

Talk to your own employer and discuss how you might be able to work from home for at least part of the work week. Investigate the possibility of working four ten-hour days rather than five eight-hour days. Make your own contribution to reducing the traffic volume and the attendant air-pollution. Bank your free time wisely and spend it with your friends and family, time being one-way and irreversible. A new world order is taking shape and we all have much to gain and little to lose.

November 13th, 2000

Copyright (c) 2000 by Phil Selby