The Myth of Telecommuting


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I've got a myth I'd like to bust: the myth of telecommuting. I read statistics everywhere about how more and more organizations are embracing remote working. But frankly, I don't see it in practice. I get blown over by the hot air generated by Enterprise 2.0 hyperbole, but there's got to be more to this evolutionary step than social networking and webinars.

Take a look at the want ads: Count the number of jobs you would consider applying for that actually say "location N/A" or "telecommuting an option." Sure, you can work from home doing customer support or telemarketing, but what about skilled professionals? How many full-time, salaried positions promote this option as a standard, or even as a perk? Consider Mediabistro, which breaks jobs down into some very useful facets, one of which is location. There aren't any jobs listed with location N/A. Even digital publishing jobs for web companies such as Facebook or About.com or with titles such as digital media supervisor still mandate a 9-to-5 day at the desk. OK, I did see one ad from a company called We Do Web Content that will allow workers to telecommute after a probation period ... 1 or 2 days a week. So these web content workers still need to be located within commuting distance of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to get the job.

Let's look at the job board on paidContent.org-a hub for digital content activities. The location breakdown also lacks a N/A or remote option. A job listed for Foursquare (a company predicated on digital interactions) "will be based in our headquarters in downtown New York City." A listing for an ad executive for MySpace actually features a large pink box saying, "This employer requests that only candidates with in 100 miles of Chicago, CA [sic] apply." Every staff ad in Gorkana's weekly journalism jobs list offers an on-site position, despite the fact that the company clearly caters to the digerati. Notably, Gorkana does include location N/A listings, but these are for freelance blogging and writing positions.

Certainly, my cursory look through some want ads, combined with some general observations, doesn't make for a scientific study. And I know of at least one notable exception: Newstex. Larry Schwartz has built a hell of a business with his no-office, virtual work-force model. Rafat Ali founded paidContent in a similar vein, though the company has since shifted owners and become more office-space-centric. There's no reason other companies can't leverage this low-overhead, high-performance model and provide full-time employee perks such as a 401k and health insurance.

There are some hard truths, at least in my industry, that make remote working a realistic option: If editors don't make deadlines, there are blank pages or blatant gaps in posting schedules. If sales people don't sell, there are blank pages and blatant gaps in revenue. You know if these people are delivering. Yes, there are sales guns for hire who work from wherever they are, as well as a raft of freelance writers and editors. Yet, I marvel at the fact that most companies have not moved beyond rewarding employees who clock desk time instead of seeking out those who are clocking results. If you can't trust employees to get the job done, fire them.

I have worked remotely for part of my workweek for the past 12 years. This "luxury" did not come easily. I have earned it by proving time and again that I can meet or beat deadlines and expectations, that I can manage a team of writers located all over the world, as well as work with team members back at the office. I have had to re-prove this work ethic to new employers, but I know it works. Our content constantly wins awards, and I know that my team is respected within our organization as being responsive and deadline-driven.

I spent a year working with a group of authors on a book project called Dancing With Digital Natives: Staying in Step With the Generation That's Transforming the Way Business Is Done. In it, contributor Brynn Evans writes about what she calls the "work practice" of the native, and Susan Evans (no relation) writes about alternative work environments. They provide copious statistics demonstrating the evolving desire to create a new work-life balance in which people can choose to live and work where they want, even when they want; a balance in which performance is the measure of success and work time and place are made malleable to support bottom-line objectives.

I live this. Yet-at least for now-I am the exception, not the rule. While I know other editors who stay home to get "real work done," away from interruptions and distractions, this is a practice that is not supported by management in its governance nor in its provision of enabling technologies. Luckily, a generation that is perfectly at home working on the web and in the cloud is growing up, and I look forward to having them lead this next step in work evolution. For now, though, let's see some of the 2.0 companies put their workers where their hyperbole is and drive some growth with the best web-enabled employees who are empowered to do the best work they can.