Dream of telecommuting may become more elusive

Wary of slackers, the corner office holders appear to be rethinking the wisdom of letting folks work at home

Telecommuting, a perennial dream of the technorati, has been back in the news recently, sparked by bird flu fears, high gas prices, hurricanes, transit strikes, volcanoes -- you name it. The good news is that telecommuting is having a pretty good run, with knowledge workers leading the way. AT&T and IBM, for example, allow many of their people to work from wherever they happen to live. JetBlue is using home-based service reps.

Gartner estimates that more than 80 million workers worldwide worked from home at least one day per month in 2005, up from 38 million in 2000. And in the United States, by far the world's leader in telecommuting, almost a quarter of all corporate workers telecommuted one day a month in 2005, twice the number from 2000 -- these figures don't even include regular road warriors or self-employed people.

But here's the bad news: Gartner expects the growth of telecommuting to slow, from 12 percent -- worldwide and in the United States -- in 2005 to 5.5 percent worldwide and 3.7 percent in the United States by 2008. Apparently, there was a telecommuting surge post-September 11, which is now petering out; this despite the increase in broadband penetration and telecommuting-friendly technologies such as software VPNs, secure Web apps, and VoIP, and despite the rise of performance management and dashboard-driven cultures -- which in theory should create meritocracies less dependent on water-cooler schmoozing.

So what gives? In my opinion, it's good old human nature -- that gut feeling managers have that most people will slack off away from the office, without adult supervision. While this is certainly true in my case, many people do find ways to be productive outside the office. I heard, for example, that actor Ben Stiller sometimes takes the most expensive hotel room he can find to guilt himself into productivity. Linus Torvald presumably got Linux started from home without too much slacking.

But we're still missing the crucial piece to convince the corporate world to ramp up the work-from-home option. I think I've come up with it: technologies to erase the last vestiges of stigma around working from home:

The work channel: A new, high-def Web and satellite channel showing people working 24/7 at their PCs, in cubes, in conference rooms, at companies like yours. Bolted onto the new Windows Vista (or Mac OS X) desktops, this uncloseable window would be your constant reminder that everyone else is hard at work -- and you should be, too.

National grooming ID system: Much like the emergency broadcast system, this nationwide, mandatory-participation remote sensor and dashboard network would allow your co-workers and managers to know your personal grooming status at all times during work hours. Showered? Teeth brushed? Good job shaving, or half-hearted?

Home-office noise cancellation appliance: This industrial-strength, software-upgradeable device would selectively cancel out distracting noise from leaf blowers, screaming kids, Coldplay, whatever. (Actually, the Coldplay feature could have broader applications, in my opinion.)

Web-based alimentation management system Much like TiVo's home media option, this would be controlled remotely by your spouse or manager -- hopefully not the same person. Basically, it's a huge remote locking system for key distractions like the refrigerator and pantry, tied into a wide-area sensor network to monitor stealth end runs to the local convenience store, and it would work in concert with ceiling-mounted chocolate and pistachio or cashew nut detectors, much like today's smoke alarms.

So that's it. Let me know your thoughts. Gotta run, I hear a dog barking. I mean, I'm getting called into a meeting.

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