The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Telecommuting: Is There Anything It Won’t Do?

There actually is a magic bullet solution to a lot of America’s big problems and its something we can all do in our bathrobes and slippers. It’s telecommuting, and it can make America, and the world, richer, happier, and greener all at the same time.

And it can make our society more family friendly too, which is why we are pleased to note Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover essay in the most recent edition of the The Atlantic. From 2009 to 2011 Slaughter was the director of policy planning at the State Department. She was the first woman to occupy this prestigious position, and her essay, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” is a cri de coeur on behalf of similar high-achieving professional women who find it difficult and even impossible to balance the demands of a big job and raising a family.

Anne-Marie is of course onto something, and at Via Meadia we are happy to see that she understands that telecommuting can be more than a convenience. It’s part of the kind of revolution in American life that can give all of us lives more like the ones we want.

Yet our work culture still remains more office-centered than it needs to be, especially in light of technological advances.

One way to change that is by changing the “default rules” that govern office work—the baseline expectations about when, where, and how work will be done…

One real-world example comes from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a place most people are more likely to associate with distinguished gentlemen in pinstripes than with progressive thinking about work-family balance. Like so many other places, however, the FCO worries about losing talented members of two-career couples around the world, particularly women. So it recently changed its basic policy from a default rule that jobs have to be done on-site to one that assumes that some jobs might be done remotely, and invites workers to make the case for remote work.

Slaughter cites the case of Karen Owen, a career foreign-service officer in the FCO:

Before her current maternity leave, she was working a London job from Dublin to be with her partner, using teleconferencing technology and timing her trips to London to coincide “with key meetings where I needed to be in the room (or chatting at the pre-meeting coffee) to have an impact, or to do intensive ‘network maintenance.’” In fact, she writes, “I have found the distance and quiet to be a real advantage in a strategic role, providing I have put in the investment up front to develop very strong personal relationships with the game changers.”

Nor does Slaughter limit herself to a discussion about women. Men, too, can benefit from telecommuting, whether they have a family or not. Of course, Slaughter admits that telecommuting doesn’t work for every job, but it will work for more jobs than we use it for now.

Via Meadia salutes Anne-Marie for her creative suggestions and hopes her ideas gain traction in offices and in the minds of policy wonks everywhere.

There isn’t, unfortunately, a single big lobby pushing this important idea. For one thing, the highway lobby and the mass transit lobbies loathe the thought of reducing peak traffic and congestion on the countries transportation network. No contractors get rich off people sitting at home drinking coffee.

But if you are tired of polarization in our politics and want something that everyone from social conservatives to feminists to libertarians to greens can get behind, take a look at this issue. As Anne-Marie notes, not everybody in the US can telecommute. But many of us can, at least for a few days a week, and using high tech to make our lives better is what progress is all about.

Published on July 6, 2012 9:00 am
  • Jeff Younger

    It’s true that telecommuting makes sense. Companies can offload the huge expenses of office space. Employees need not waste hours of their day commuting to work.

    So why isn’t telecommuting more common? This points to a slight disagreement with the article.

    We don’t need to change our expectations about how work gets done and where. We need to change our expectations about management.

    Successful telecommuting initiatives invariably demonstrate the uselessness of most management positions. At least half of middle management (in large companies) aren’t needed.

    That’s why telecommuting isn’t more common. Lot’s of managers would lose their jobs. Offices exist to give managers jobs. Sad, but true.

  • WigWag

    Via Meadia is right that telecommuting is great and that it’s the wave of the future (or should be); but is this statement really true?

    “For one thing, the highway lobby and the mass transit lobbies loathe the thought of reducing peak traffic and congestion on the countries transportation network.”

    Is there actual evidence beyond an isolated quote here and there that either the mass transit lobby or the highway lobby oppose telecommuting? And if they do worry that it threatens their interests, does their concern really rise to the level of “loathing?” Is Via Meadia trying to suggest that the mass transit and highway lobbies are so opposed to telecommuting that they detest it with the white hot passion of a thousand suns?

    If the evidence exists, it would be interesting to know what it is. If the evidence doesn’t exist, the youngster who drafted this post needs to be admonished that exaggeration makes his/her argument less convincing not more convincing. On the off chance that it was Professor Mead who composed this post (which seems highly unlikely to me) certainly he should know better.

  • RAS743

    “…[N]ot everybody in the US can telecommute.”
    Yes, well, there is that little exception isn’t there, the 16 percent of Americans who live, and would like to continue to live, in rural areas *and* telecommute?
    I don’t know what broadband options you have in the Hudson Valley, Professor Mead, but if we are all to make our way onto the broad, sunlit uplands of 4G/5G broadband, the Verizons of this world will have to take the long view and invest far more in infrastructure than they are currently investing.
    At least, that’s my take on it, based on 10 years of struggling with the vendors providing internet access in my area, in a rural Virginia county with a population of about 32,000 people spread over almost 500 square miles.
    I’ve been around the block with Verizon, Alltel (subsequently swallowed by Verizon), Hughesnet, U.S. Cellular, and now Verizon again. I started with dial-up, couldn’t and still cannot get wired DSL, used satellite for a number of years despite its inherent limitations when working on a corporate VPN, and have twice tried wireless, the latest with Verizon. To get a usable signal for my 3G hotspot and cell phone from a tower about a mile away, I had to absorb the additional expense of erecting a directional antenna and signal booster, risking life and limb about 30 feet up on the roof of my garage. For all of my trouble, on a *good* day I get about .9 MB download and .4 MB upload; typically I’m at .4 and .2, respectively. Verizon is promising wired DSL *availability* in my area starting in January 2013, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
    The sum of my experience is that companies such as Verizon, as is the case with all American companies in all sectors of the economy, are focused only on low-hanging fruit, the easy short-term profits. If somehow Verizon could provide broadband to its customers by outsourcing it to China to earn a nickel extra profit, it would. I exaggerate of course, but after all, what am I asking for but an opportunity for Verizon to make more money by selling me a service that will meet my needs. Currently the cost/benefit comparison does not work in favor of potential rural customers like me.

  • Fiddlesticks

    Current American corporate doctrine is OK with telecommuting as long as workers seem to be “suffering” for it; i.e., furtively breaking away from the fam and logging in to work on nights and weekends.

    Also, telecommuting on a nights/weekends only basis makes operations managers feel good. Often, they lack the knowledge to perform the mission-critical tasks that take place during after-hours downtime; if these were performed in the office, the manager’s superfluity would be thrown into starker relief.

    Remote work makes his disengagement less obvious.

  • Jim Breed

    I guess anyone who works in manufacturing, construction, or personal services is just screwed. As an engineer who works in a factory, I can testify that there are very good reasons to have a staff of tech people who can walk to the line in a flash.

    I never have been able to understand these people like AMS who [egregiously complain] about how hard they have it. As the son of a public health nurse and an airline mechanic, it always struck me as a privileged person saying, “oh look at me, how hard I STRUGGLE!”

  • Eurydice

    The quote from Karen Owen contains a very important point – “…providing I have put in the investment up front to develop very strong personal relationships with the game changers.” She understands that the office isn’t really about getting work done, it’s about being part of another kind of family, with all the issues of trust, resposibility and political alliances.

    It sounds ideal – stay home and get done both that big proposal and all the laundry. But I can tell you that computers won’t change human nature. Wherever humans are, they’re the squeaky wheel – whether you’re facing your boss at work or your family at home, they’ll always expect the ultimate attention.

  • Nate W

    @Jeff Younger has it.

    Many companies don’t like telecommuting because they are stuck on the east-coast 20th century model of the corporation. Tom Wolfe explores this in a fantastic essay in his book, Hooking Up. Modern innovation in the workplace has all come from west-coast companies in fields that weren’t dominated by the wealthy classes. They continue to dominate east-coast and midwest companies with their hierarchical structures and believe that you can measure the amount of work being done with “butts in seats” mentality.

    Telecommuting makes perfect sense for my job in corporate IT, but I’ve worked for multiple fortune 500 corps in the past 10 years, and yet have found any that are at all open to regularly working from home, let alone true telecommuting.

    The corporate model is just as stale as the blue social model that WRM goes on about. I would argue that they’re part and parcel of the same left-liberal mindset of the past 50 years.

  • Keophus

    Wonderful how people with no particular business experience get to tell actual businesses how they should function.

  • Jim.

    People ask “what is taken away from the Foreign Office when talented women decide to take care of their families instead of working” but no one seems to be asking what was taken away from those families, volunteer organizations and institutions, and schools when the services of talented women are considered unambiguously the property of the working world.

    Look at the decline in our schools, our neighborhood ties, our institutions (including marriage and family life), and volunteer organizations in the last generation, and then look me in the eye and tell me we haven’t lost something critical, while the best and brightest didn’t even see it going.

    Telecommuting will solve any number of problems, but to claim it will help anyone “have it all”, or even begin to address the unacknowledged root of the problems we’ve seen develop over the last generation, is absurd.

  • Corlyss

    Yes. It won’t provide union bosses with easily captured people and money. It won’t provide reassurance to bosses who fear loss of control without fannies in the chairs on-site for them to “manage.” Regrettably, telework is not a serious solution to anything as long as those two forces conspire to prevent its implementation.

  • Roz

    Think of the possibilities if we could get our Congressmen to telecommute so they met with their constituents every day and the lobbyists had to come to them.

    By the way, I live in rural North Carolina and have had decent broadband for several years now thanks to an act of God. A lightening strike took out the local Verizon switching box serving this valley so the had to upgrade us way ahead of schedule.

  • Bob

    We in IT were excited with the ability to telecommute back in the 90s. Then it dawned on us… if we can do this work from home, it can be done anywhere. A couple of years later all the IT development was moving to India where very smart workers could telecommute to America.

  • thibaud

    Mead once again is channeling his inner Friedman and posting pollyanna-ish tripe.

    Anyone who’s worked in a big corporation knows that if you’re not “visible,” ie, seen frequently in the office by powerful people in the hierarchy, you will quickly lose influence. If you work from home all the time, you will in nearly all cases cease to matter. The exceptions to this rule are few, and include low- to mid-level, narrow subject matter expert “individual contributors”, database administrators, and a few sales reps whose numbers speak for themselves.

    For everyone else, the iron logic of any organizational hierarchy asserts itself, and people realize that they need to get to the office, wave the flag, cultivate the right relationships and ensure that they don’t fall to teh bottom of the dread “stack ranking.”

  • Glen

    Typo in next-to-last paragraph, 2nd sentence: countries should be country’s.