Telecommuting’s role in Community Evolution

Telecommuting’s role in Community Evolution

After thousands of years of centralizing human activities, society now has the option to de-centralize as the concept of virtualization expands. Crowded freeways every Friday during the summer is but one indication that many want, or at least enjoy, an alternate place to visit. The number of people with vacation homes indicates a desire for at least some non-urban exposure; early retirees often relocate, indicating that where they have been living is not their first choice.

If we were not anchored to the cities for our jobs, would a percentage of the population actually relocate?

If population redistribution is an emerging reality, it is a scenario that warrants monitoring; the implications are powerful and far reaching. What happens if workers are allowed to live where they choose and bring their jobs with them? Clearly, this will not be the case for many workers but how many of these workers have jobs that are located solely to serve other workers? If those that can relocate actually move, others will relocate to follow them. There is a multiplier effect that cannot be dismissed. TCR’s Distributed City Model explores these vital questions.

The President has said he wants 50% of the federal workforce to telework, which if done strategically, could mean a significant reduction in federal space requirements. Less commutes, less heating, cooling and lighting will advance the Green values of today while saving a lot of money and potentially expanding and improving services to the public. It will also create jobs as the remaining spaces are redesigned to reflect the new work arrangements.

If we apply these virtualization concepts to our work force, what happens and when? Going beyond work, if we have virtual access to a Suite of Telecommuting Applications (telemedicine, e-Commerce, e-training, telework etc), the freedom to live where we choose becomes more real. We can only imagine the impacts that will accrue when the synergy of the telecommuting mindset is fully adopted and deployed.

Is this scenario real? If not, why not? If so, do we accelerate it, ignore it or try to slow it down? What impacts do you foresee?

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Henry Brown

Hadn’t quite heard the “movement” expressed this way. Would offer that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome will in fact be decentralization.

Those in IT leadership roles have always (may be too strong of a term) opposed decentralization and history (if one calls the past 20 years or so history) points that out very clearly and in most cases the IT leadership has probably won most the skirmish’s

John Sanger

Security is and always will be a concern but that component has been getting better and better. Obviously change is an uphill battle and will not be embraced by everyone yet some industries are are proving it can be done securely. The question is: Should we embrace it for the economic and environmental benefits that are being demonstrated even when done on an ad hoc basis? IT folks, CAN your concerns be addressed?

Andrew Krzmarzick

This is an excellent question:

“If we were not anchored to the cities for our jobs,
would a percentage of the population actually relocate?”

Have you seen any surveys where citizens respond to this question?

John Sanger

For 50 years Gallup has been asking this question, sort of. They ask where you would like to live. In the most recent survey, 29% wanted to leave the metro and 26% wanted to move to rural areas. A 1996 study my the Metro Council in Mpls-St Paul found that 43.6% of urbanites wanted to live in a rural small town. They analyse four “places” as opposed to the six we define within the Distributed City Model so it is hard to track. Of course these are individuals and for families, both parents would have to agree so it is dynamic. Bottom line: there are interesting indicators that lend credence, but no one knows…

Doris Tirone

Without the “tether”, so many more jobs and job seekers would come into each market! In today’s media-enriched workplace, professionals can offer so much to so many without having to be “present” in the classic sense of the workplace. Results, not attendance, are the ways in which professionals are evaluated today so, “where” they produce their results is a thing of the past. Smart people know this and those who want to move up in their profession would have more opportunity to do so without the “tether”. It’s comes down to personal choice: do you want to be a “big fish in a little pond” or a “little fish in a big pond”? Just look at how far people on the East coast are willing to commute just to work in NYC! And don’t get me started on the “green” savings our nation would realize from telecommuting.

John Sanger

I am confused by your comments Doris- you seem to be a strong supporter of virtualization in the work place, but also acknowledge that many wish to work in NYC- an obvious goal for many. I do not presume you mean that “Smart” people telework and the “not-smart” go to NYC but how do you diffentiate the types of folks? Do you mean the green stuff has you frustrated because we are not using telework correctly or that it is simply an overused phrase? Thanks in advance for clarifing

Doris Tirone

John ~ the basic premise for my comment about working in NYC is that most people don’t have the option to telecommute and thus, are willing to travel a great distance to work in a bigger city. If these same people had the option to telecommute, perhaps they would also be willing to offer their expertise to employers in far more distant locations. “Smart” people understand that it’s often necessary to move away from familiar or preferred locations to gain the exposure and experience they need and/or to garner greater opportunties to advance in their careers. As for the “green” issue… telecommuting would not only be a positive contribution to our environment but it would also provide cost-efficiencies that are not possible when one is “tethered” to a worksite. I hope this clarifies my comments for you, John.

John Sanger

To a “T” Doris, thanks and I would agree…This also raises the issue of how does small town america attract these smart workers- either physically or virtually. That’s for a future blog on the Distributed City Model .

Henry Brown

The issue of whether someone wants to work and live in rural areas vs. major cities, IMO is generally based on the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

And when the move comes people are usually somewhat surprised and can become dissatisfied rather quickly and IMO it works both ways, to and from rural areas.

During the 1996 DOD realignment, several thousand people were expected to move from St. Louis to Huntsville Al. (both contractors and federal sector workers). At the time Huntsville was a booming metropolitan Area of ~145,000 folks, and that included several several dozens small communities. within 30 minutes commute time. When I was transferred here 6 years later it was estimated that over 30 percent of the people who were transferred here had gone back to the St. Louis area.

I have moved around a tad, and probably the two most “shocking” moves was from Longview Texas to San Francisco California and from Boston MA. to Huntsville Al.

I would guess that the amount of shock involves how involved in the community one is, the more involved the more shocking.

I have been a 100 % percent virtual worker now for over 5 years, and done a lot of virtual working before that. The key to the success of ANY teleworking/virtual program is the team involvement. And believe! “it takes 2 to dance” what I am trying to say is EVERYONE must be involved.

Eileen Roark

John, I believe that your virtual workplace is the future and it will become reality. However, aside from the obvious physical benefits, there are numerous mental health and social benefits as well. A virtual workplace literally frees the employee from the tyranny of having to deal with difficult/problem coworkers and supervisors on a daily basis. EEO offices would literally disappear, as there would be no harassment or discrimination charges brought forth. Ditto with playing favorites, as there would be no bosses office to hang out in. As the other person said, you will be judged on results, not on who you play golf with or whatever. Who wants to go to an office day after day and deal with these issues? Teleworking would greatly benefit one’s mental health.

Henry Brown

@ Eileen:
Unfortunately the dealing with difficult/problem coworkers and supervisor becomes more difficult at least IMO because there is limited ability to confront the problem face to face.

Have found over the past 5 years that playing favorites is still one of favorite pastimes of some supervisors. Guess it would be MORE difficult if the entire team was virtual in such a way that supervisor could not just go down the road to do whatever with his favorite.

If the federal sector ever gets the evaluation process right and the employees are judged on results and only results we will have come a long way from where we are even today

Guy Martin

On a slightly tangential note from Henry and Eileen, I think one of the biggest obstacles I’ve seen (in Fed) is a perceived need for ‘control’ of remote workers. Thankfully, as a contractor, I’m relatively immune from that, and, in fact, I telework the majority of the time (my boss is on the East Coast, I’m on the West), but I’ve seen it played out in the gov sector.

My personal opinion is that once the ‘millenials’ start to take management positions in gov, we’ll start to see this kind of attitude fade away. Young people who’ve grown up utilizing technology to make their ‘world’ smaller are used to dealing with people in both virtual and physical spaces, and the trust level seems to be higher for them.

I know from personal experience that I actually work a bit more (all told) when working virtually, as it is much harder (or easier, depending on perspective) to blur the lines between work and home.

Jack Repenning

Not sure about that “less heating, cooling, and lighting” idea: wherever I work, I need warmth! And if I only telecommute a few days a week, my office space may still be heated/cooled and lit when I’m not there. For software workers like myself, at any rate (I can’t speak for less compute-intensive knowledge workers), telecommuting also has some tendency to increase the number of computers, adding to the power demands.

In the longer term, we should consider not only changing our choice of place to work, but changing the places themselves: reforming land-use away from the auto-centric suburban bedroom sprawl model. A village, with local services for groceries and retail, could also have a local temporary office space (either dedicated, or down at Starbucks ;-).

Henry’s point (about resolving conflicts and misunderstanding) is very sound, but doesn’t have to be done every day: an argument for partial telecommuting, rather than an argument against it entirely. Even Guy manages to make it out to DC now and then!

Doris Tirone

Guy has a valid concern … Fed supervisors tend to be more “old-school” about their charges. Fed supervisors are more likely to require physical presence of their subordinates to satisfy some misguided notion they cling to about demonstrating their ability to supervise. Even if it isn’t about control for them, it certainly suggests that Fed supervisors don’t understand what it takes to oversee today’s employees. This lack of “worldliness” in Fed supervisors is what prompted my thoughts about Why Telework Can’t Work for the Federal Government. And yet, the very nature of telecommuniting could create the opportunity for a greater dispersion of government employees throughout the country. This might stimulate greater insight and understanding among Americans about the “business” of govenment by permeating communities (rural or suburban) with Fed workers who are closer to the issues and perhaps, better positioned to share their understanding. The ability to disburse one’s workforce throughout the nation would also insulate smaller communities from the impact that typically hits cities where Fed jobs now congregate. Recall how BRAC hit smaller communities quite hard when jobs were RIFd and entire facilities were closed.

John Sanger

Jack raises an interesting point with his assumption

And if I only telecommute a few days a week, my office space may still be heated/cooled and lit when I’m not there

The point is that if you telecommute a “few days per week” your space will change. Why pay for empty space, better to use it by sharing spaces. Thus when strategically deployed at a “critical mass” level, you do save utility and space costs. We begin by “right sizing” our facilities – especially when engaging in the LEED program- and yes, land use is important but a view of preserving the viability of small towns is equally as important as compressing the urban areas.

As Guy and Eileen point out, work is not about “controlling” nor about trust but rather about evaluation. If you can’t evaluate the work being done remotely you probably can not evaluate it being done on-site either. Improve evaluation capabilities for telework and you improve performance in the office as well.

John Sanger

Doris is getting to the crux of the issue. The difference between the ad hoc way telework has typically been done and the way it can be done strategically is critical. Ask any manager if they want their staff on site or not, and, unless there is a consequence, they invariably will say on site. If Management is serious about telework, they build a plan and deploy the workers. Managers are then evaluated on how well they met their depolyment targets. Our Telework Deployment Program is built on this principle and the benefits are obvious.

John Sanger

A belated response to Henry… his example of 30% returning to St Louis means that 70% stayed in Huntsville. There are obviously many reasons for moving but being near family has historically been a powerful draw. It is hard to guess what happens when the work force is virtualized but I believe whatever it is, we need to pay attention because there will be consequences

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Telecommuting does have many benefits but it suffers one significant drawback: social networking. Yes, we can network on the Internet but (until virtual reality technology improves greatly), face-to-face interaction is still the most productive method for building trust and building high-performing teams.

As Richard Florida points out in his book, (Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life) where you live has a profound impact on your career and effectiveness as a professional. My own personal experience is testament to this as I was a PMF in DC from 1997 to 1999 and then moved back to Louisville, KY in July of 1999.

Until December 2008, I was essentially out-of-the-loop with the innovative Federal Government community in DC and my previous network faded away. I had the Internet and corresponded regularly but because I wasn’t physically in DC, my past colleagues moved on without me. That’s just a natural fact with professional networks.

So, if you are telecommuting, work in some facetime so you are not quickly forgotten.

John Sanger

like everything else these days, if we plan and schedule events we are more productive- not to dismiss the random water cooler phenomena but that too can be addressed. Yet to be proven is my theory that community projects can be a great team building focus that doesn’t necessarily detract from the work day…your point is more specific than the general comment about needing social interaction period! In that case community involvement addresses that point well as was commented upon in the last blog. Building the professional team inter and intra employers is an opportunity as well as a challenge. What say the rest of you?

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Jack – if we can manage to find creative ways to offering telework as an opportunity, plus creating consolidated office spaces for functions that require customer-facing, in-person communication, my hope is that we’ll able to “Tear Down Those Walls!” (previous blog post)

To your point about community projects, I will actually be participating in one in two weeks called “ServeRDU” organized by my church. They have asked that people take the day off work, but my intention is to simply to start my day a bit sooner, help out for a few hours, then return home and finish out the work day…since I work from home, I don’t really need to change my clothes, navigate special arrangements for day care, etc. – making it a lot easier for me to pitch in.

And I am building relationships and a “social network” with members of my church and local community in the process…

Jack Repenning

The rumors of the death, at telecommuting’s hand, of social networking have been greatly exaggerated. While casual or random face-to-face encounters unquestionably remain the best vectors for phatic and spontaneous communication, we’ve (the telecommuting community) been working on electronic replacements for at least three decades, now. Tools like group chat (IRC or Jabber), mail lists, and microblogging can go a long way towards being the “digital water cooler.” True, they require some training and practice in managing the distractions … but then, so does the actual water cooler!

One thing we’ve found is that real face-to-face contact early on is important. Once we know each other organically, have heard the voice and looked in the eyes, electronic communications are much more effective, and much less misunderstood.

John Sanger

Interesting report Guy, thanks for the reference. We have been promoting a strategic approach which meets all of the objectives cited yet have been unable to find anyone at the federal level that really wants to engage in a dialogue about how it can be done….and as you well know, a strategic approach not only advances the operational environment but perhaps more importantly, in addressing agency missions. When fundamental changes in approach are made, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, the tools are ready to go.

Lanier Hall

Telework certainly has a place in today’s workforce and with the support of President Obama and the current administration, it seems that this initiative will continue to gain momentum. Telework does, however, face several obstacles to adoption – management resistance, security concerns, start up costs, to name a few. The study just released by the Partnership for Public Service (mentioned below) dispels common myths and barriers about telework and presents recommendations to expand adoption. The full study, titled “On Demand Government”, can be found here,

The obstacles to telework are far outweighed by the benefits of telework. Even if employees do not relocate once teleworking, they would still save on commuting costs and enjoy better work/life balance. The “What We Saved; What We Learned” study ( reveals the financial and environmental savings that can be realized with telework, as well as the increase in productivity. Telework also offers real estate savings to companies. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (PTO) telework and hoteling program has allowed PTO to avoid an estimated expenditure of $11 million in additional real estate expense.