Colin Ellard Ph.D.

Mind Wandering

Head in the Cloud: What's Wrong with Telecommuting?

Telecommuting offers flexibility but the cost may be that you can never go home.

Posted Mar 18, 2013

Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and CEO of a new venture called Square aimed at revolutionizing credit card payments via smartphone, doesn’t have a desk.  Although at 36 he’s slightly long-in-the-tooth to be considered a member of Generation Y, his work habits and business ethic are very much in accord with the “always on” modus operandi of Gen Y’ers, children of the Millenium who are said be finding new ways to blur many of the traditional distinctions between the workplace and everywhere else.  The media are abuzz with accounts of the strange new world of the Gen Y work environment which, to put it plainly, sometimes consists of no work environment at all.  Office spaces tend to be open, collaborative and devoid of physical signs of a corporate hierarchy, such as the secluded and private corner office.  For a Gen Y employee, the workplace can consist of any place where a laptop, a tablet, or even a phone can fit.  This can be a coffee shop, a comfortable chair in a bookstore, or a park bench.  Along with the unshackling of work from particular places has come the blurring of the distinction between work-time and home-time.  We are told that Gen Yers don’t want to be chained to a 9-5 punch clock.  They want to work when and where they will and to be rewarded for their accomplishments rather than their simple physical presence at corporate headquarters.

 Major companies like Apple, Google, and Pixar, recognizing the hard truths of shifting demographics, anticipate that the Gen Y work ethic will soon come to dominate the corporate world are working hard to find ways to accommodate these new styles of work.   Many are managing these changes by building environments filled with glass, open workspaces, desk-sharing arrangements, and a workspace filled with playful furniture, ping-pong and foozball tables that symbolize a new understanding of the fuzzy divide between work and play.

 Given these epic changes in how we think of work, many were surprised by the recent edict of Yahoo chief Marissa Meyer that, beginning in June of this year, work-from-home arrangements that any of their employees might currently enjoy were to be suspended.  It’s not clear at all that Meyer’s now-famous memo should be read as any kind of sea change in corporate culture so much as a call-to-arms at a company that is currently struggling.  Nevertheless, the memo has triggered an enormous amount of discussion regarding the future of workspaces and the benefits and liabilities of telecommuting.

 Some of the benefits are obvious:  anyone struggling to balance a difficult set of life contingencies—raising a family or caring for aging parents, for example—will find life easier if they have the flexibility to break off work at 2 in the afternoon to run a load of laundry or take a child to the dentist.  In addition, telecommuting allows us to make more flexible decisions for housing.  Freed from concerns about the time spent in the daily commute—often one of life’s chief sources of unhappiness—we can live wherever we want to.  The liabilities are also pretty clear.  It isn’t obvious that employees can collaborate as effectively without the ineffable qualities that arise from the chemistry of physical human contact.  Employees who are not in the building may be unavailable at critical times calling for all hands on deck. 

 But these points have been made a million times already.  As an environmental psychologist who believes strongly in the power of place to condition our feelings, our thoughts, and our behavior, I’m most interested, and somewhat concerned, with the long-term consequences of a future world in which work has lost its place.  When I think back over my own working life, I recall a particularly stressful period early in my career where every day seemed to bring new events that threatened to end my career unless I handled them with aplomb.  As a young man with small children to take care of, the stress levels were unbearably high.  During that period of my life, I lived about a 30-minute commute from my office.  I found a way to drive home that took me through country roads, farmer’s fields, forests and winding roads through a gorgeous wetland.  By the time I reached home, I’d been able to restore my spirits, leave the stress of the workplace behind, and enter my home ready to meet some very different kinds of challenges.  Would I have survived that period of my life without that kind of respite?  I’m not sure.  Of course not all of us are so lucky and the drive home can be a miserable experience, but nevertheless I believe there is still something to be said for punctuating the different aspects of our lives with clearly demarcated spatial boundaries.

 I’m not a Millenial.  I’m not even a Gen-Xer.  My much younger colleagues have sometimes argued that my age and the context in which I grew up, so different to today’s digitized world, makes it difficult if not impossible for me to understand the ways in which a person who lives and works in The Cloud thinks and feels, but I’m not certain that this could be true.  It seems unlikely that a couple of decades of technological progress can erase some of the basic operating principles of a human mind that has been shaped by biological forces exerted over thousands of generations.   An enormous amount of research has suggested that our minds are delicately tuned to the shapes, colours and organization of our environment, and I’m not convinced that our new intimate relationship with computer technology could have caused such a thoroughgoing upheaval in the basic truths of what it takes to maintain a healthy and happy mind.  Can advances in technology really have erased the importance of place?  If so, I haven’t seen the evidence.

It’s worth considering that what has really changed so dramatically is the nature of work itself.  A hundred years ago, for most of us, working meant making something physical.  The tools and materials required for work were often specialized and concentrated in particular locations.  Now, with so much of our work involving manipulation of bits of information rather than such things as the shaping of wood and metal, the tools and materials of work are completely ubiquitous.  If the affordances for work are everywhere, then it seems almost inevitable that work will take place at all times and places.  And, as our work life bleeds into every one of our waking moments, I find it hard to imagine that our young workers will be able to resist the impulse to work at every hour and in every place.  Are they really doing this because that’s what they want to do or is it more the case that our advances in technology have wrought a world in which all of the protective physical walls that shelter and sustain us have been replaced with mutable electronic walls that appear and then disappear at the press of a button? 

So much of the debate about Yahoo’s recent decision has seemed to me to be centered on the question of whether a ban on telecommuting is a wise corporate move, as if it were a given that anytime a worker had an opportunity to stay away from head office, it was the best thing for them.  I’m not so sure that this is true.

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