Wouldn’t it be great to be able to work from home, especially in the days of high gas prices and (in the case of those living in the north) upcoming winter storms? While there might be many forms of work that will always require commuting, a lot of other jobs could easily be done from home, cutting the pain and cost of commuting. Not only would it be more practical, but it would also be good for the environment and for family life.
Ever since OPEC vexed Jimmy Carter into wearing a cardigan, telecommuting has been touted as a fix for what ails the US office worker — the agony and expense of commuting, the drudgery of cubicles, the shortage of family time. Long before the advent of the Web, evangelists were confident that cordless phones and faxes had already made the office a relic. “Working from home holds the promise of a new American dream,” Paul and Sarah Edwards gushed in their 1985 manifesto, Working From Home, in which they extolled the virtues of commuting from breakfast nook to den.
Two decades later, however, most workers still trudge to the office. Though a third of the more than 150 million working Americans telecommute at least occasionally, most do so just a few days each month. Only 40 percent of companies permit any sort of work-at-home arrangement, which means most insist on full-time attendance. According to a 2006 survey by the Telework Exchange, the top fear among resisters is that they’ll lose control of their employees, whom they doubtlessly envision frittering away the hours between 9 and 5 playing Minesweeper and munching Cheetos.
Telecommuting’s foes couldn’t be more misguided. When gasoline costs $4 a gallon, companies shouldn’t just be doing all they can to expand telecommuting — they should be scrapping their offices entirely. No, not turning them into toy-filled communal spaces, as advertising titan Chiat/Day infamously did in the early-’90s, but abandoning them outright.
That might sound a bit radical to those who swear by the office’s supposed benefits, like camaraderie and face-to-face collaboration. But time and again, studies have shown that telecommuters are every bit as engaged as their cubicle-bound brethren — and happier and more productive to boot. Last year, researchers from Penn State analyzed 46 studies of telecommuting conducted over two decades and covering almost 13,000 employees. Their sweeping inquiry concluded that working from home has “favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent, and stress.” The only demonstrable drawback is a slight fraying of the relationships between telecommuters and their colleagues back at headquarters — largely because of jealousy on the part of the latter group. That’s the first problem you solve when you kill your office.
Perhaps you’ve been an office drone for so long that you can’t imagine life without fuzzy, low-slung cubicle walls. Well, given that the typical American house is now over 2,500 square feet — up more than 60 percent since the early ’70s — surely you can find room to build your own cube. Add some stale coffee and a buzzing fluorescent light and it will feel just like… well, you know where.
Brendan I. Koerner (email@example.com) is Wired‘s Mr. Know-It-All.
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