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The USA TODAY Telecommuting Article*: Responding And Pondering
By Gil E. Gordon - July 10, 2001

"Telecommuting Gets Stuck in the Slow Lane: Working from home loses appeal for harried employees, skeptical bosses" June 25, 2001

Today's WALL STREET JOURNAL has an item in the "Work Week" column as follows:

As Cellphone Towers Proliferate, Safety Concerns Rise

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says 118 workers were killed between 1992 and 1998 while working on cellphone towers. Injuries haven't yet been counted. The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association says the number of cell sites, which includes towers and other structures, more than doubled to 104,300 between 1997 and 2000.

If a reporter wrote an article based on that fatality statistic and titled it "Cell Phones Cause Worker Deaths" the article would be viewed by almost everyone as irresponsible and even ludicrous - even though it is factually correct if you believe that correlation is the same as causation. I feel the USA TODAY telecommuting article is almost as irresponsible.

It could be worse: the article could have said that telecommuting is responsible for increases in global warming, stubborn laundry stains, or ferret bites. But it didn't. Fortunately, the article stopped short of those kinds of outrageous and unsupported (and unsupportable) statements. But it did manage to restate many of the old arguments that have been kicking around for years. However, this isn't a commentary on journalists or journalism; it's much more important to address the issues raised in the article.

This Glass Isn't Even Half-Full

I'm not going to offer a line-by line response to the article. Others may choose to do so, but for me that's a "been there, done that" issue. (For example, you might look at the article titled "Telecommuting (or Telework): Alive and Well, or Fading Away?" on the ITAC Web site; I had a strong hand in that article and it reflects my basic views on the appropriate use of telecommuting.)

Instead, let me offer these three points for your consideration:

- The "Grapefruit Diet" Approach: USA TODAY's view of telecommuting is to the proven realities of telecommuting as the grapefruit diet is to good nutrition. Want to lose lots of weight fast? Eat nothing but grapefruit for a week. Want to get on the path to better weight management? Adopt a more balanced diet and exercise - and yes, have a grapefruit now and then. I understand that bold, extreme statements make for attention-getting journalism, but in this case it borders on sensationalism.

- Woe Is Me: The photo accompanying the article which almost certainly was selected by an editor and not by the reporter - showed a telecommuter/mother with a phone cradled to her ear, one hand on the keyboard, and one hand on her baby in an infant seat nearby. For good measure, there was a cell phone lying on the desk, the baby was crying, and this poor woman had rings under her eyes and a forlorn look on her face that gave the impression that she was as downtrodden as could be. All that was missing was shackles around her ankles, and it would have been a perfect depiction of the electronic sweatshop view of telecommuting.

- Confusion of Methods and Concepts: For the umpteenth time, we have an article that zeroes in on what anyone who has given any thought to telecommuting knows to be examples of poor implementation. Two examples: Allowing or encouraging parents of infants or toddlers to be babysitters and full-time telecommuters simultaneously is a dumb idea - just ask any working parent who has tried it. Allowing or encouraging telecommuters to work at home full time (five days a week) is generally problematic as well - though it can be done if done with care, and sometimes it is absolutely unavoidable for reasons of distance or medical needs. These are examples of questionable approaches to implementation - not examples that prove the underlying concept of telecommuting is misguided.

Why Are We Facing This Problem - Again?

In addition to the misconceptions and other problems in the article, I'm troubled by the fact that the article appeared at all. Why is it that these "telecommuting is terrible after all" articles seem to pop up with regular frequency? Among the possible:

- Jealousy: Maybe journalists are wannabe telecommuters but their editors won't let them. Maybe they figure, "If I can't do it, then nobody else will either." (Note: I have no idea if the reporter who did the article, Stephanie Armour, does or doesn't telecommute or want to do so. I do know, however, that her prior work on this and many other topics for the paper has been very good. She has interviewed me several times and I always felt she was looking for information, not for points to buttress her preconceived notions. I have no idea what happened this time.)

- Contrarians Are Popular: If something is going well and is well-accepted, that's not news. But if you can find the soft underbelly of that positive trend (or product, or person), all of a sudden you have a news story. This fits with the mega-hyped, alarmist tone of much of our news these days; if it isn't (or can't be made into) a scandal, exposŽ, or possible cause of cancer, nobody will pay attention.

- Daily Deadlines: The subject makes for good filler during slow news periods. You may remember that the big OSHA flap hit the media during the Christmas holidays in 1999; this article ran on June 25, when the typical summer slowdown has begun.

- They're Actually Right: Maybe telecommuting really is a lousy idea, and those of us who have been involved in the field for years are just too close to it, too self-interested, or too pleased with our own work-at-home situations to see how anyone else can find fault with it.

No, I haven't turned traitor, and I still make my living primarily in this field. But the truth is that telecommuting isn't perfect. And the more painful truth is that many people who are pro-telecommuting are (like myself) either homebased entrepreneurs or salaried employees who regularly telecommute by choice. Trying to convince us that telecommuting isn't great is like trying to tell a toddler on the beach that eating sand really isn't a good idea. When you're in the middle of doing something you enjoy, it's hard to listen to more rational counsel from those who supposedly know better.

I mention this point because it has for far too long been swept under the home-office rug: my genuine, deep, and long-standing interest in telecommuting stems in no small part from the fact that I love (for the most part) to work and live under the same roof*. I readily admit that this personal passion may blind me to the existence and/or extent of some of the very real problems in telecommuting. Mea culpa.

(* The "work and live under the same roof" line must be credited to Paul and Sarah Edwards, whose classic and extraordinarily excellent book WORKING FROM HOME includes the phrase in the book's subtitle.)

That said, I am steadfast in my view - supported by the experience of thousands of employers - that telecommuting is a useful, beneficial, sensible work option when it is used appropriately. Overselling it beyond that is just as irresponsible as undervaluing it as the USA TODAY article did.

The Real Issue: Will The Article Make Any Difference?

When all is said and done, what damage will this article do? Actually, I think very little - other than to raise the blood pressure of the consultants, researchers, and line managers who know the facts to be otherwise. Here's why we really shouldn't lose much sleep over the article:

- People who thought telecommuting was a good idea before they read the article still think it is - and if anything, the article serves as reinforcement for following best practices for implementation, and a reminder about the need to steer clear of implementation potholes;

- People who thought telecommuting was a bad idea before they read the article still think it is - and if anything, the article reinforces their skepticism and misconceptions. They weren't big fans of telecommuting before and they aren't now;

- People who were on the fence about telecommuting before they read the article are the ones I'm most concerned about, because it is often these undecideds who are in positions to approve or veto well-planned telecommuting initiatives in their organizations. Best-case outcome is that they'll see through the transparently unbalanced reporting and start asking some intelligent questions that deserve, and will get, intelligent answers. Worst-case outcome is that they'll use the article to help tip them into the anti-telecommuting camp. It's a 50-50 proposition.

Keep this point in mind: if the measure of an innovation's success is whether or not it lives up to the 25-year-old fantastic and futuristic predictions of reporters or researchers, then telecommuting definitely is a failure. The "everyone will be working at home in their pajamas by the year 2000" nonsense that we saw in the media is not the benchmark against which to measure telecommuting's success. It made for catchy headlines then, and the failure to reach that ridiculous goal makes for catchy headlines now.

I can make up as long a list of telecommuting's problems as anyone, and am always quick to tell reporters, clients, and researchers what I know from twenty years of experience to be true: telecommuting is no more perfect than anything else. It has the potential to be a win-win solution for employers and employees if and only if it is used in the right situations, the right way, and for the right reasons. It is conditionally beneficial, but USA TODAY chose to portray it as almost unconditionally problematic.

(Thanks to my colleagues, Alan Denbigh, Michael Dziak, Bob Fortier, Jim Lush, John Niles, Jack Nilles, Paul Rupert, and Jeff Zbar who, through assorted phone calls and emails since the article ran have shared their reactions and help shaped mine. I take complete responsibility for this response; they did not contribute to it so don't get upset with them if you don't like it.)

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