Readers discuss the pros and cons of telecommuting.
To the Editor:
“Is Suburban Sprawl on Its Way Back?” (Sunday Review, Sept. 15) pointed out that one reason suburban sprawl may not resume its outward creep is that “moderate-income families have seen their transportation costs balloon to more than a quarter of their income.”
I remember the many years in which I had a two-and-a-half-hour round-trip commute to my office job in northern New Jersey. It was awful, it cost hundreds of dollars a month and it was totally unnecessary. Today, I work at home in western Massachusetts, making a good living as a freelance writer. I regularly interview sources, confer with editors and do my work via phone and Internet. I travel on business no more than twice a year.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York was quoted in a recent magazine interview saying: “Being on a conference call isn’t the same as standing at the water cooler. It just isn’t. And I think you gotta go to work. And I think people should be next to each other to the extent possible.”
To which I say, where’s the evidence that physical proximity to one another helps people work better or more creatively? And where’s the evidence that professionals are any less productive when they work at home?
It’s time for more employers to take advantage of modern technology and allow telecommuting. Then people won’t have to choose between having a nice house in the suburbs with a long commute and living in an overpriced condo near or in a city. They will live better, spend more time with their children and be more productive when they don’t have a costly, stressful commute every day. And they can work just as closely with their colleagues as they can when they’re in the same office.
Sheffield, Mass., Sept. 15, 2013
The writer is a freelance health care writer and a contributing editor for InformationWeek.
For 12 years, people in our company worked from home offices. For the last year and a half, most of us have been working out of an office in Manhattan. This experience has convinced me that people who work collaboratively work more creatively, more efficiently and more productively when in close proximity. Some of our employees still work from home, and I have noticed that they’re often about half a step out of sync with the rest of us because they’re simply not in the flow of day-to-day operations.
Yes, you can get a great deal done by Internet and conference calls, but not everything that transpires in a company is documented in an e-mail or a phone call. There’s all that in-between stuff, the stuff that happens between the idea and the delivery.
Moreover, it’s difficult for an employer to ascertain the productivity of a worker who is not in the office. An employee working from home can run errands, go to the gym or otherwise not do his or her work, without the employer knowing it. A number of our remote employees have proved this to me over the years.
And finally, there’s the human factor. Inflection, mood and meaning are all much more apparent in person than over the phone, and certainly more than in an e-mail. When it’s really important, people will inevitably say, “We should meet in person to discuss this.” As far as I’m concerned, business is really important every day, so we should meet in person every day to conduct it.
New York, Sept. 18, 2013
The writer is a partner in Ray Bloch Productions, which creates and produces corporate events.
Like Mr. Terry, I have been working from home for some time now, thoroughly enjoying my 15-second commute to my basement office. While there are times that I miss the chance to bounce ideas around with colleagues at the “water cooler,” I do not miss the corporate politics and petty personal disputes that often interfered with productivity.
Mr. Terry notes how modern technology enables telecommuting. I think modern technology also hinders the collaborative productivity assumed to be the advantage of being present in the workplace. In my visits to a wide range of corporate offices, I am struck by how “standing by the water cooler” has morphed into isolated intimacy with smartphones and laptops. While physically present on site, more often than not employees are mentally present elsewhere—staring at a device that seduces them with e-mails and text messages.
Milton, Ga., Sept. 18, 2013
There are mostly two kinds of people working from home: freelance and independent workers with no benefits or job security, and the elite. Those of us who work for the elite, who can least afford commuting, and who live farthest from the urban centers in the only neighborhoods we can afford on our meager paychecks, cannot even dream about telecommuting, even when the technology will permit it. Why? Because the elite (our bosses) won’t allow it.
The privilege of telecommuting is yet another extension of class warfare in our country. The elite feel entitled to be paid high salaries while staying home to enjoy parenting, raising their children in safe neighborhoods with good schools, while everyone else has to show up for work, texting or e-mailing our children instructions for microwaving dinner.
New York, Sept. 18, 2013
The writer is president of the Union of Clerical, Administrative and Technical Staff at New York University.
Mr. Terry asks, “Where’s the evidence that physical proximity to one another helps people work better or more creatively?” There are plentiful social science studies that point to sociability as the locus of creativity. From artists and writers who discuss and influence one another’s work, to scientists who have their labs in the same building and who meet over coffee in the cafeteria, to students who discuss class lectures, to architects who work in teams, sociable interaction provides a rich environment for creative productivity.
Telecommuting, whether in the workplace or in taking college courses via the Internet, may be cost-effective, as the writer suggests, but it provides for comparatively barren workaday experiences.
Easton, Pa., Sept. 18, 2013
The writer is a professor of sociology at Lafayette College.
While I agree with Mayor Bloomberg that “being on a conference call isn’t the same as standing at the water cooler,” there is another option in addition to working at home or working in a traditional office. Co-working spaces—shared office spaces for independent and remote workers.
The days of employees showing up at the office from 9 to 5 every day are over. Now, whether they are employed at a Fortune 500 company or the entrepreneur of a start-up, professionals are seeking a work space solution that is inspiring, flexible and cost-effective, with all the amenities of a modern, well-appointed office.
Co-working spaces provide all those things plus the added bonus of having a built-in community of like-minded professionals with whom to connect, collaborate and exchange ideas. There are over 2,500 co-working spaces globally—including W@tercooler, which I co-own—and the number of such spaces has been doubling every year.
Studies have shown that independents and remote workers who work from a shared space are typically more productive, see an increased income and are, well, happier.
Tarrytown, N.Y., Sept. 18, 2013
I have been splitting my time between a home office and a remote work office for the last 10 years or so. My answer to the question of whether you need to go to the office is: It depends on what you need to get done.
When I need to deliver something—a report or a design or a piece of software or some other concrete product—there is nothing better then locking myself in my home office, walled off from all the distractions that come with the social environment of the workplace.
When I need to coordinate the activities of others, or figure out how to put a bunch of disparate resources together into a project, or generate ideas that push the edge of what is already known or that require specialized knowledge from a variety of disciplines, then it is all but impossible to do that without interaction with others in some real, physical, way.
Working alone provides concentration and time for deep thought.
Working with others provides synchronicity and a dynamic back-and-forth—almost an anti-concentration—that allow you to make unexpected connections.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I require both.
AUGUSTUS P. LOWELL
Durham, N.H., Sept. 18, 2013
I worked from home for a few years between other jobs. I had previously commuted 90 miles a day. It was great not getting in my car on a snowy day, or being able to sit at the computer in pajamas (pre-Skype), but, ultimately, I missed the water cooler camaraderie that Mayor Bloomberg referred to.
The biggest downside of working at home, though, was its effect on my children. Children understand “Mommy is not home.” It is tougher for them to accept “Mommy is home but there is something more important to her than you.”
Let’s face it. There are certain jobs that are more solitary than others, and there are certain people better suited to them.
LUPI P. ROBINSON
North Haven, Conn., Sept. 18, 2013
Mr. Terry’s claim that telecommuters “can work just as closely with their colleagues as they can when they’re in the same office” is contrary to my experience.
Last year I worked at home as a freelance writer and I am much happier now that I go to an office every day. You simply can’t duplicate saying something on the spur of the moment to a colleague who is standing or sitting next to you, and you certainly can’t get instantaneous feedback. Nor can you duplicate body language.
And while being able to discuss the finer points of what could happen next on “Breaking Bad” on Monday morning may sound trivial, it isn’t. That kind of informal conversation is invaluable for social bonding and facilitating more comfortable dialogue when it comes to workplace topics. And, depending on if Walter White lives or dies, you can have the immense satisfaction of saying, “See, I told you so!” in person, not over the phone or in an e-mail.
South Orange, N.J., Sept. 18, 2013
The writer is a senior editor at Financial Planning.
I am an editor and photographer working for the past eight years from my home in the mountains of Puerto Rico. I have yet to miss the water cooler conversations or the long work-interrupting lunches. When I need feedback from my associates, we meet on Skype or on the phone. I save at least 18 hours a week by not having to brave the metro traffic.
My life is infinitely richer. Sure I work harder, and I work stranger and longer hours, sometimes to 3 a.m. But I always make deadlines—I am in complete control of my time.
Do I work more creatively? Of course! Those saved hours are spent reading, researching, writing, photographing and experiencing new things. My boss saves office space, computer and support services, and a parking space. Best of all, both my wife and my cat are happy to have me around!
Gurabo, P.R., Sept. 18, 2013
The Writer Responds
The thoughtful responses show a wide variation in opinions about telecommuting. Over all, they split on the issue of whether people need face-to-face encounters with co-workers to be productive, creative and happy. Another thread running through the responses is that some occupations—and people—require more social contact than others do.
Of course, I understand that not all types of work can be done at home. Police officers, teachers and nurses, for example, must work elsewhere, as Mr. Rechner points out. But there are legions of people with middle-class office jobs who could do them just as easily at home. And, while not all employees are trustworthy, most could be counted on to do their work well and on time if their jobs depended on it.
Mr. Schneiderman says there are plenty of studies that “point to sociability as the locus of creativity.” But in all the examples he gives, people could collaborate just as fruitfully via phone, e-mail and/or Skype. I also don’t think that time-consuming, soul-killing meetings at work are conductive to creativity or productivity. Moreover, as Mr. Rathjen points out, the same technology that makes telecommuting possible can erect barriers to people coming together physically in offices. Think of the endless snarl of interoffice e-mail!
Finally, the “barren workaday experiences” that Mr. Schneiderman associates with telecommuting could be banished if independent and remote workers adopted the “co-working spaces” cited by Ms. Ross.
Sheffield, Mass., Sept. 19, 2013