Telecommuting is so ex-urban

Sure, working from home occasionally can offer a productivity boost. Getting away from the phone and co-workers is sometimes necessary to accomplish large, solitary projects or catch up on a dozen loose ends.

But everyone working from home, connecting via the internet and VOIP or video conference to each other is not going to happen.  As suburbanization and then ex-urbanization became the trend, there were workplace gurus who insisted that the office building would soon be a dinosaur.  This hasn’t happened.  Office space is more expensive than ever in most cities and globally.

In the modern economy, far too much productive economic activity requires collaboration. Companies ranging from banks to software companies, law firms and financial advisory companies need bright people working together. Many brains thinking about an issue differently — but together — solve problems faster and innovate better than individuals working alone.

That’s one reason why cities are spikes of economic activity, to use a Richard Florida term. That’s why industries cluster together — they take advantage of many brains thinking about interconnected subjects.

Few companies that require creativity — that earn their revenue or stock value from the collective brain power of their people — can afford to have them working in silos at home.  Working independently, thousands of wheels will be continually reinvented, and won’t get around to creating an automobile.

But, many people when given a choice do not telecommute very often. I can’t find the source right now, but I recall a recent UK study in which only about 10% of people who could do so telecommuted regularly, and most of them only did so only 1 or 2 days per week.
There are a variety of reasons why people don’t telecommute most of the time.

  • Some don’t want to be forgotten about at the office. The best projects may go to people who are physically there when they are dreamed up.
  • Most people enjoy being part of a group — some would argue that it’s human nature to want to belong and the workplace provides an avenue for that expression. For many, going to work has become especially important given how many more years people are now single and often living alone. People all crowd into expensive “superstar” cities in order to be around other people (why else would you pay the rent, tolerate the traffic, and accept the noise? it comes with great creative and inspirational benefits.
  • Collaborating with smart co-workers to solve complex problems can be exhilarating.

In some cases today, people don’t have the room at home to telecommute much. For families living in urban spaces rather than suburban ones, there isn’t a separate “study”.

For decades, people have been predicting the end of the office building and the end of downtowns. The suburbanization trend lead many to dream of living in the mountains or by the beach or lake and away from a city altogether. Some did this in the ex-urbs. Why can’t I just telecommute rather than drive was the plea.

Noting that occasional telecommuting was highly productive, many blamed inflexible employers for chaining them to their desks. However, as employers have brought in increasingly flexible work policies at many companies, regular telecommuting has not caught on. Most of the time, people want to be near people to stay in the know, hear the latest industry news, and collaborate.

Working from the ex-urban mansion is not efficient for participating in a collaborative world.

6 comments

  1. [...] the internet and VOIP or video conference to each other is not going to happen.” Read more at AllAboutCities.ca. Filed Under: FeaturedTagged: canada, commentary, homeworker, telecommute, virtual [...]

  2. Lloyd Alter says:

    I work fulltime for a big international website and was frustrated and lonely, and started a “water cooler” chat on skype for all the fulltime writers, spread between berlin and portland, oregon. It started slowly and was just the writers without editors, and then the editors wanted in, and then the managers, and suddenly there are 12 people online all the time, chatting, passing around tips, exchanging crappy jokes, and telling the boss that we have to go pick up our kids or run to the store. Actually I think I collaborate more now than I did when I was in an office and had to get up and talk to a co-worker or boss; we are all swimming in the same pool in constant contact.

    It does not change the fact that I want to live in a spiky creative city, but I think one can be as connected working at home as in an office. I am inspired by living in downtown of a city like toronto, but I work out of the spare room and collaborate with people all over the world. The technology is just going to get better, too.

  3. [...] makes sense, it should be noted that most employees of companies creating mobile workforces are not telecommuting on a daily basis. Many will work from home occasionally when they need to work independently, but [...]

  4. Telesaur says:

    Working remotely requires planned communication. And planning to communicate on a regular basis is much more effective than assuming it will happen when employees bump into each other in route between cubicle and restroom.

    Lloyd’s example of using Skype is brilliant. Remote work can be just as, if not more, rewarding and collaborative, than in-office work.

    I started a telecommuting Facebook Group, for anyone interested:
    http://tinyurl.com/teleworkgroup

  5. work says:

    It makes me sad that someone would give up on the idea of telecommuting. It is so very important to our environment today. Imagine the day that office workers who are able, all stay home and work on their computers. The day where videoconferencing and “Skype” and other such methods of communication are used. Rather than mucking up our globe with car emissions, we feel content at home.

    Although it may be a slow process, I believe it is imparative that corporations embrace the telecommuting option. I encourage study and understanding of the option before choosing it. It may be taking some time to grab ahold of our workforce in huge numbers, however, those with highly sought out skills are already dictating to their employers that they will only work at home. The affect will trickle down, it only takes time.

  6. Vince says:

    Finally! An article I completely agree with. I would absolutely hate working from home, too lonely. Skype is no substitute for actual human contact. I agree that companies should offer more flexible hours, but don’t see how telecommuting is good for the environment. If you work from home just to stay living in the suburbs, you probably have to drive everywhere anyways since most suburbs have terrible transit.

    So the REAL solution is to work from an office, and take transit, or bike or even walk! I hope the work from home trend gets nipped in the bud.

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