With technology improving each year and some 30 million or so American workers expressing a desire to work from outside the office, there’s good reason for optimism about the future of web work. But not everyone thinks the sky’s the limit when it comes to offering more and more workers the opportunity to work virtually.
For example, Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, recently wrote a draft book chapter entitled The Dark Side of Telecommuting – Is a Tipping Point Approaching? In it he argues that telecommuting cannot keep expanding without creating significant issues. We called him up and asked him why he is less optimistic than some about the expansion of telecommuting.
“Everybody loves it,” he said, including himself among fans of web work. “I’ve actually looked over thousands of articles and hardly any of them are critical, but the theme I’m bringing up here is that we’re probably at a tipping point. There are about five or six different areas that people don’t seem to be talking about that are probably going to cause the return on investment from telecommuting to start going down if it isn’t already.” So what are some of the things he thinks will be a drag on web work expansion?
- Demographics. “The basic demographic of people who telework is basically wealthy, relatively educated, also relatively satisfied with their jobs, and the new people who come on, they have to come from a different demographic,” explains Ruth. Will new telecommuters be as suitable for virtual work as those already at it? “There may be some factors—temperament, life-style, discipline, work focus ability, eating habits, tolerance for ambiguity, and others—that limit the effectiveness of additional entrants,” Ruth has written.
- The frustrated remainder. If more and more employees flee their cubicles for web work, what happens to those workers who are inevitably left behind? “They are frustrated,” says Ruth, who thinks that managers who remain behind to man the ship are going to face increasing challenges as more and more workers go virtual. As the demands on them grow do the productivity gains of telecommuting shrink?
Ruth concludes: “There is a possibility that once the most qualified persons are working from their homes, cars, restaurants and customer sites at high levels of morale and productivity, there may be some major problems in welcoming the next large group into the fold.”
Do you agree?