usable in any place a human can be used



[caption id="attachment_739" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Just let it warm up for a minute, you will be fine."]car filled with snow[/caption]

I am not in Indiana today, the trip has been postponed until the Snowpocolypse is over. I awoke this morning to find another 6-9 inches of snow had fallen on top of the unmelted foot and a half of snow already on the ground. I groggily turned on the TV, Columbus is under a Level 2 Snow Emergency and just about everything is closed. I check with the Franklin County Sheriff Office and see that for a Level 2 Snow Emergency the situation is as follows: "Roadways are hazardous with blowing and drifting snow. Only those who feel it is necessary to drive should be out on the roadways. Contact your employer to see if you should report to work."

With the threat of hazardous roadways and the fact that my job in no way, shape, or form requires my physical presence at any location, I shoot off an email, following the sheriff's advice to "Contact your employer to see if you should report to work." The sad news, of course, is to put on your business casual, bundle up, clear off the car, fight throw the blowing snow, and carry your laptop with you so you can plug in and get to work. The alternative of course would be to stay nice and warm, not endanger my life and property, and plug in my laptop at my desk at home. This alternative is clearly unacceptable, against the advice of the Sheriff's office and against all common sense I physical transported myself and my laptop several miles down the snow covered roads to plug in here at work today.

Here I am doing the same work I could be doing from home, as far as I know, the SOA book that I'm studying and the Message Broker Toolkit examples I'm working through are unaware of my physical location. I can easily access my corporate email, sametime account, and all relevant files from home, I can even participate in the conference call meeting that we have scheduled for 1 o'clock. The question is why, in spite of the rest of the city shutting down, was I required to come into work today? The rest of this post will present the Case For Telecommuting, the Case Against Telecommuting, and an Analysis. All of these sections are written with programming or some other suitable telecommuting profession in mind.

The Case For Telecommuting

Technology has long been on the march for decentralized development. Being able to reach resources from any location is more and more possible with web based solutions and DVCS. In addition to having resources available from any physical location our ability to communicate and collaborate despite physical distance has been steadily improving. Tools like Google Wave, Instant Messaging, and Collaborative editing have matured and become rich and expressive mediums. Phone conferences are now common place when working with outsourced resources and with physically distant resources.

For the particular case when travel is dangerous telecommuting has a distinct advantage over commuting. Commuting is another part of life that is ever growing.

In fact, so many people now commute more than an hour-and-a-half to work, the Census Bureau has given them a new name: Extreme commuters. ... It's growing five times as fast as the general growth in commuting — about three million, 3½ million [commute] more than 90 minutes a day, about ten million more than 60 minutes.

Commuting also has a negative effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health. The impact of Voluntary Solitary Confinement (VSC) are not pretty.

Long hours of commuting, especially if you’re driving, is associated with high blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased anger and resentment at work... Long commutes can also increase the risk of heart attacks, flu, depression etc.

- Effects of Long Commutes to Work

The Washington Post has an article from 2007 discussing the problems with long commutes.

As a consequence, more drivers will probably suffer the health effects of a commuter lifestyle, researchers and doctors said. "You tell someone they need to exercise or go to physical therapy, but how can they? They leave at 5 a.m. and get home at 7 or 8 p.m. at night," said Robert G. Squillante, an orthopedic surgeon in Fredericksburg who has treated patients for back pain and other commuting-related issues.
"It's just tiring," Hutson said of her daily drill. Someone who was never much for caffeine, she now bolsters herself with coffee in the morning and soda for the evening rush. But by midweek, "I'm running on fumes. That's the biggest toll. It's not enough sleep."

No one pays for the commute except the worker, and as we saw during the gas price spike up to $4/gal (even now its not much better, only because we have that high water mark to compare against does ~$2.50/gal seem reasonable) the cost of commuting can become a rather high "work tax." The Washington Post article hits on it briefly, but if you have to get up early to commute and get home late because of a commute you are also paying the price in terms of your time. You may only be getting paid from 9 to 5 but you are effectively giving your job all the time from the moment your commute begins in the morning to the moment it ends and you are home. If you have to adjust your sleep schedule to support this then any time you could be awake, doing something you enjoy, actually living your life, is forfeit to the needs of your employer and not you.

The Case Against Telecommuting

If telecommuting gives the working man more free time, more money in his pocket, and better health, why not let everyone telecommute? The arguments against telecommuting are many and we will examine a few that I have encountered.

The problem of split attention. When you are face to face with someone you know that they are giving you their full attention. With an IM or phone call the employee could easily be working on something else at the same time. They could be doing something work related, reading documentation, writing some code, discussing a problem with another colleague, but whatever it is they are splitting their attention and multi-tasking, and sometimes that is unacceptable.

The problem of accountability. This is a corollary to the problem of split attention. Split attention isn't so bad when the attention is split between listening to a meeting and writing code, it is pretty awful though if the attention is split between listening to a meeting and playing World of Warcraft. Keeping people accountable for the time they claim to be working is more difficult if they are unsupervised and physically distant.

The need for humanity. Often times phone conferences and IMs are more than enough to meet our communication needs, but this is not always the case. Sometimes there is no substitute for "pressing the flesh." Important meetings demand a level of attention that necessitates being physically present.

The problem of ineffective communication. As good as the tools have become there is still a gap between talking with someone, being able to read their facial expressions and body language, to fully understand what they are communicating. Telepresence and other techniques are getting us closer, but a face-to-face conversation conveys a wealth of unspoken communication.

The problem of bureaucracy. I am no fan of bureaucracy and there is a certain liberating power to having a team physically assembled. Difficult technical problems can be jotted out, ideas bounced around more easily. Communication tools are great, but still don't beat a whiteboard that everyone can see or sitting down with another programmer and sketching something out on a piece of paper. These impromptu mini-meetings are often incredibly productive, and they can be difficult to have when physically separated.

The problem of facility. Some of us have great work space set up for working from home. Fast internet connections, powerful machines, quiet space. But this isn't universal, some people can't work from home for one reason or another. A lack of connectivity or acceptable development machines, an environment that is not conducive to productivity, or some other issue. Some people require a more structured working environment in which to be productive. The lure of facebook and Judge Judy prove too much and workers that could be productive in an office environment fail when working from home.


Telecommuting is increasing and is getting better. For now it is an option but societal and economic pressures and an increasingly agile work environment will make it more and more necessary to effectively optimize one's workforce. Many of the concerns and arguments against telecommuting boil down to a deficit in trust. The alternative though, longer and longer commutes coupled with increasing transportation costs is untenable.

As with an paradigm shift, new etiquette will have to be formed, the way we think about work and home will have to change, and tools will have to be built and improved to rise to the challenge. Although we shifted to the information age and a knowledge based economy in many ways, we continued to hold over traditions from a bygone era.

Telecommuting will take some time to get right, for anyone interested in adopting it I think a blended approach is the way to go. Start off small by offering anyone who would like to try it to telecommute one day a week or month. The important part will be follow up, getting feedback on what worked and what didn't. You can use this feedback to fine tune the experience and come up with a manageable system. Physical presence will always have a place in the workplace but as we move into a future with increasingly global concerns and clientele, increasing transportation costs, and a better understanding of the physical and emotional ramifications of chronic voluntary solitary confinement, telecommuting will become less science fiction and more day to day fact.


  1. Another good post. I put in a plug for your blog at mine. Anyway, I think many people forget the point you are making.

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