A few months ago, Yahoo put an end to all telecommuting (at least temporarily) and set off a firestorm in the press. The New York Times published an article about working life at Google, which made me laugh since Google is about as far from the realities of the American workplace as you can get.
I spent more than two decades working as a writer in high tech, fighting almost daily to be allowed to telecommute at least part of the time. The issues are complex, and I would like to talk about three types of hell for writers in business that telecommuting helps to avoid, using the Google workplace as a starting point.
The first thing that stuck me about the Google article was that the headquarters that the Times was writing about was in Manhattan. My guess is that the highly paid Google workers probably didn’t drive to work, but took public transportation. This, to me, is paradise. At my first job, which could not be reached by public transportation, the hours were flexible, so you could commute either before or after the inevitable volume delays and traffic jams caused by accidents or bad weather.
My second job, also in the suburbs, could be reached by public transportation, but only if you lived in Manhattan, which my boss did. So he had no sympathy for any of us since he didn’t have to drive. Three or four managers later, when my workload was huge, a more reasonable (or perhaps more desperate) manager, who had a small child, told me it was better than I worked at home for two hours than spend those two hours grinding my teeth in traffic.
I was also now writing for colleagues and customers worldwide (including Singapore, India, Thailand, and Australia), so I was on the phone at all hours, which made commuting even more impossible.
Family Reality Hell
A second thing that struck me about the Google employees was their youth. I wondered how many of them faced the realities of family life. I remember the day my manager sent us all an email that said “I have to work from home today because my son just threw up all over my car on the way to day care.” This manager worked punishing hours, so no one was going to object to the chaotic day we would have with her as she juggled getting her car cleaned, her sick child, and her many meetings. We had too much work to indulge in “Personal Days.”
I certainly would not argue that anyone should try to telecommute and take care of a child at the same time. I have been on business calls interrupted by children demanding ice cream, the sounds of people obviously washing dishes, and dogs barking constantly. My guess is that Yahoo telecommuting may have been full of this kind of abuse, and so I can understand why it had to stop. To succeed as a telecommuter, you must make a clear distinction between working at home, child care, and chores.
Cacophony and Other Environmental Hells
As a writer in business, the worst problems I encountered were environmental – workplaces that had too much or too little light or were too hot or too cold, along with cubicles in high traffic areas where the noise was loud and unpredictable. One manager I worked for understood this (he was also a writer) and so he made sure that all his writers had laptops. Provided they used an online scheduler so he could reach them, all writers were free to roam the building and work in unused conference rooms or empty offices so they could have peace and quiet.
Google solves this problem by providing many different types of environments, but most businesses, especially small ones, don’t have this luxury. Today telecommuting is very easy technically, and the best solution is flexibility with the possibility of working remotely about 50% of the time. This can require a lot of juggling, but it is also probably the sanest, most humane solution to several very difficult problems.