Telecommuting: Not Just for Disaster Response

You may have seen the big news over the weekend: a key piece of the San Francisco Bay area’s highway infrastructure was destroyed by a spectacular gasoline tanker truck fire. Sure enough, the news coverage included the key point that savvy web workers have grown to expect: “Transportation officials…were urging people to telecommute if possible.” This advice gets trotted out after every natural and man-made disaster; when society gets disrupted, it’s telecommuters to the rescue!

But I’m starting to wonder how long we’re going to have to watch telecommuting (and by extension, other forms of web work) be marginalized this way. Implicit in the “telecommute in case of disaster” message is the other message that no sensible person would do this in normal times. Given the choice, of course everyone would prefer to get up an hour earlier in the morning and join all the other commuters in their giant vehicles, jockeying for position in the multiple lanes of a still-intact I-80 to I-580 connector in order to have the pleasure of being tied to a desk, wearing a suit and tie, for eight hours.

What’s it going to take to make telecommuters first-class citizens of the working world, rather than the crazy uncles that most companies don’t really want to talk about? Advances on many fronts, I think:

Business. It would help to have companies and executives who are more concerned with results than with empire-building, to accommodate those who work best in the burst economy. This would help prevent web work from becoming a career killer.

Government. Some basic tax fairness for telecommuters, or even tax incentives, would go a long way towards making the telecommuting option more mainstream. Like it or not, in our society money talks. ($6 per gallon gasoline would have the same effect, but that falls under the heading of “telecommuting as disaster response” again).

Technology. The current tools for maintaining a connection between teleworkers and those back in the home office are crude or experimental. As we move towards the 3D Internet, it will become easier for telecommuters to interact with their peers, and so remain a part of the team even though they happen to be physically in another place.

Personal. Finally, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we respond to “what do you do for a living?” questions with “I telecommute.” In an ideal world (at least in my ideal world) that piece of information would be irrelevant. Instead, try “I’m an architect who telecommutes” if you feel your audience must know that you work at home. After all, you didn’t go to college to become a telecommuter. The more we act like it’s no big deal, the more other people will start treating it like a normal life option.

What do you think? Can or should we do more to make telecommuting and other web work a core part of the work landscape? Or do you like being one of the crazy fringe people?

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