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This telecommuting stuff simply will never work


I THINK telecommuting is a bust as a workplace lifestyle.

My sister, fed up with clients calling during dinner time and at bedtime, finally kicked her telecommuting lawyer husband out of the house, trussed like a goose in his multiple phone lines.

My spouse, facing a drive to work that might soon double, won't even consider telecommuting. He believes the fire dogs need to be in the firehouse when the siren sounds.

And, ending the ultimate telecommuting experiment, 200,000 people who were told to work at home during the Atlanta Olympics hopped back in their cars the Monday morning after and were glad to do it.

The notion that we were all going to save the environment and smooth the conflicts between work and home by sitting at a computer terminal in a bathrobe and slippers until the kids arrived home from school is a bust as a trend.

The rest of working America realized what I know: If I worked at home, I'd weigh 210 pounds and every scrap of laundry would be folded and put away but I wouldn't get done what I get paid to do.

The computer screen would follow me around the room like a huge unblinking eye while I dusted baseboards and sorted old family pictures, but I wouldn't do enough work work to earn change for the soda machine. Not that there would be one in my house -- another reason not to work at home.

The purported benefits of telecommuting were too good to resist, but it looks as though everyone has managed to do just that. Though the number of telecommuters has increased steadily since the early 1980s, it stood at a fluid 15.7 million workers by the end of last year, according to Cyber Dialogue, which keeps track of such trends.

"There was a lot of naivete surrounding this," says Gil Gordon, of Monmouth, N.J., who began consulting with companies on telecommuting issues in 1982. "It sounded great to lots of people and everyone thought it would be easy. But it wasn't."

He was sitting in his home office, but my call had come in on his home telephone. He was just about to leave for his office, he said, and gave me his office number. I was completely confused.

"It's a little complicated to explain," he said.

And that might be the problem with telecommuting. The line between work life and home life, already blurred by pagers, cell phones, voice mail and e-mail, is further obscured when you work at home.

When, exactly, are you off-duty?

If you have trouble keeping your work life under control or your family at bay, telecommuting is just going to be another stress-producer.

"We like parts of it," Gordon says, but telecommuting was never supposed to empty out the office towers. It was always going to be a selective work option.

"This is not like dental insurance or an extra week of paid vacation, something everyone gets no matter who they are with the company. It is not a perk or an entitlement. It is a job assignment. Within a company there will be uneven use of it," says Gordon.

"Companies who get over-excited about telecommuting are going to create more problems than they solve."

But, Gordon says, companies who resist this option altogether because they want their workers where they can see them working are the companies that resist other changes, like job-sharing and flex-time.

"They are going to find that they are corporate dinosaurs," Gordon says.

"We shouldn't assume everyone needs to be in the office all the time," he says, earning my vote for president. "Companies should say to an employee: 'Work where you work best this week or this month.' "

The best telecommuters are said to be self-directed, self-motivated, independent, focused, well-organized, dependable and have solid, successful relationships with bosses and co-workers.

No wonder telecommuting hasn't taken hold.

That job description narrows the number of candidates to, like, no one I know.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

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