RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Will telecommuting kill your chances for promotion?

February 5, 2007

Office life has never been a particularly attractive one. No office, no matter how exciting or extensively outfitted with Aeron chairs, is going to be mistaken for a human habitat. Our species long ago outgrew living in tiny little caves with flickering lighting and strange stains on the floor, except at work. In Cubeville, there is often isolation, but no privacy. Thoughtful reclining is easily mistaken for laziness. Office parties and office politics are frequently undertaken by the same people. Sealed air-conditioning systems move germs around randomly, so everybody has an equal chance for Legionnaire's disease.

Is it any wonder so many workers have seized on DSL and laptops to work at home? Yet, what's it doing to your chances for advancement? According to a Jan. 17 article in Network World, it can kill your plans for the corner office (www.networkworld.com).

Programmers exult in distance work. They point out that they essentially produce goods, not services, that their output is objectified and concrete, so they can work just about anywhere, similarly to their cottage-weaver forebears from 18th century England. Writers, designers and engineers can often work from home, too. In fact, computer administrators are able to work from their home computers and do every bit as good a job as they could sitting next to their brood of blinking boxes, as long as the broadband holds up.

Telework critics point out that there have been huge data losses from laptops stolen from telecommuters, but defenders of the practice point out that it's rare, and would be rarer still if the data weren't held locally on a laptop hard drive.

There are other strong arguments for home-work, too. Commutes in large communities are constantly stretching out, and getting more expensive. Small companies can have large staffs with little overhead. The chance of key employees' being killed on the highway diminishes. It is the triumph of modular man.

On a large scale, we call this outsourcing and look to India or Indonesia for our faceless people. Dan Pink, the author of "Free Agent Nation," has popularized the idea of working for yourself and just being an outside source for bigger companies.

If your idea of an organization is a colony animal that needs output more than people, perhaps telecommuting is the way to go. But it has its drawbacks, and the Network World article's report on an executive survey performed by search firm Korn/Ferry International points this out. Despite executives' acknowledging that distance workers were often highly productive, those same executives still thought telecommuting would hurt employees' chances for advancement.

It's not hard to guess why. While programmers work with code and produce output, executives work with people, and you don't promote people you haven't learned to trust. Telecommuters are generally seen as suppliers who just deliver to the back dock. It's the people we've seen muddling through crises and handling themselves in meetings that we want in management.

There isn't much of a bond between company and teleworker, and promotion is generally about some kind of shared bond. When telecommuting, the employee is almost literally the job that he does. Rather than Bob being the guy who does our programming, we now have programs that were done by, uh, oh yeah, Bob somebody.

Telecommuting is widely believed to be growing, so the implication is that workers will continue to stratify and strain the fabric of company cohesion. Jim Collins, in his book "Good to Great," said one of the things you had to do to make a company great was to get the right people on your bus, then get everybody in their right seats. Today, some of the best people won't get on the bus; they'd rather drive alongside in their own cars and just toss things back and forth through the windows.

The numbers of telecommuters are rising, and the practice is coming to be one of the most desired perks. Yet it's much harder to form dedicated, strong teams out of scattered workers, and many companies seem to have stopped trying.

On the other hand, some are moving the other way, at least temporarily. In one recent (and loudly excoriated) example, HP cut back significantly on its IT staff's telecommuting in 2006, supposedly to reinstate teamwork on the job. In some cases, such as Ford's truncated telecommuting plan, the expense of keeping up home equipment exceeded office costs.

I suppose it's a philosophical matter as much as anything. Is a company a group of human beings sharing a focus and trials, or simply a means of aggregating goods or services for delivery elsewhere? Is there still any place for synergy among people, for teams that inspire and raise everybody's energy? That's tough to do when you're participating in meetings via e-mail.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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