Feedback on Alice

I’ve got a modest postbag on Alice in Business (see also here). Three comments published there comment on telecommuting, with two in favour and one not. For myself, I’ve worked for myself since 1997 (though with 7 months on-site in 1998, so only really from home since then), and find it hugely preferable to the Dilbertian office.

I got some more interesting comment in email. I’ll quote from them here, and let the authors either identify themselves or preserve their anonymity:

  1. By improving communication, making possible email, video-conferencing etc we make possible global distributed teams (think Open Source/Free Software but also outsourcing to India). And what’s the first thing that all these globally distributed teams do? Get together in person.
  2. I enjoyed “Alice in Business”. On the other hand, you must be careful not to wind up with a world like the one depicted by E.M. Forster in his short story “The Machine Stops”. Everyone lives in a cubicle-like flat, with all services piped in. There is no need ever to travel or even leave one’s own flat, and as time goes by it becomes unthinkable to do so.

Both are interesting points. The first is, I think, in part “Because we can” and because it’s the done thing. Although I have met my most important client in person (once, in 2005), I have many clients I’ve only ever met online, and the last time I worked for someone I’d met before signing the contract was that onsite job in 1997/8. On the other hand, I do travel (within Europe) to various conferences, where I meet up with fellow techies.

The second is paradoxically something brought about by cheap and ubiquitous travel. It’s car ownership more than anything that has killed off local facilities (village schools, post offices, shops, etc), and so destroyed communities. With the car now seen as a necessity by many, the carless (the poor and the disabled, who are not carless by choice) are driven into their little isolated containers. The life they’d have had a couple of generations ago has gone.

But it’s not just the obviously-excluded: just look at commuters in their cars or on the tube, each in their own little bubble. Community on the roads is actually rather easy to estimate: stand by the roadside on an obvious route with your thumb in the air. Every driver who passes with a spare seat has rejected your company. Oh, and I speak as someone who does hitchhike, and who always stopped for hitchhikers (except smokers) when I had a car.

What I’m advocating is diametrically opposite to Forster’s story. We dispense with (most) travel as a disruptive chore, but that doesn’t mean abandoning a day or night out, or a holiday. On the contrary, with more time and less stress, we can enjoy a much fuller social life.

A final thought on The Machine: just look at the panic buying of food when a few thugs blockaded fuel depots and the authorities did nothing to stop them. That was just the threat of the machine stopping. And the more it relies on transport (sometimes obscene amounts of it), the more dependent we all are on The Machine.

If you’re still reading, I’ll leave you with my editor’s comment, to which I have no answer:

Best way to kill a VC project – [techie minion to boss] “You know that expensive trip to Europe last year, when your wife hit the Pariis shops and you got to Twickenham for the Rugby, and it all came out of the relations-building budget? Well, great news, we now have technology which means you can stay in your office in Poughkeepsie all year, although the time difference means you’ll be working nights as well as days, and we’ll save a fortune…” [exuant minion carrying cards]

Posted on January 16, 2007, in rants, travel. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Well, my (I’m an associate editor of Reg Developer) comment on killing a videoconferencing project was a bit tongue-in-cheek – but it’s a real issue, nonetheless.

    I’ve worked flexibly from home via email for years, and love it. But I choose where I live carefully (I can’t drive for medical reasons), because I too try to make regular human contacts to keep myself sane…

    Which means trains to conferences in London and no parking/rush hour worries (BTDT). But society doesn’t make life easy for flexible workers. Train fares cost a fortune because I can’t book in advance and there isn’t a suitable season ticket. Getting a credit rating is hard (luckily, I got one when I was a wage slave). Insurance often doesn’t understand the “home office” and working from home can make your mortgage contract look iffy.. And you simply don’t get sick or take holidays .

    Yet, flexible workers are more productive and less of a load on the infrastucture of UK, plc.

  2. I made the comment about “The Machine Stops”, and I am relieved to see that Nick is not against all travel. So many people seem to gravitate to simplistic all-or-nothing prescriptions these days, I have started to see it coming (even when it isn’t).

    I believe there is a huge amount of unnecessary air travel going on, both for business and “pleasure”. But it is hard to tell people that what they want is irrational, because wanting is irrational almost by definition. It’s tough to argue with the limbic system, which reacts on much the same level as a frustrated two-year-old. If business were run on strictly rational grounds, and by strictly logical means, everything would no doubt be a lot simpler. As it is, people generally do what they want or what they feel they must, and language provides them with an excellent resource for justifying whatever they have already decided to do.

  3. As the author of the first quote, I’ll just say that I think it’s a rare person/team that doesn’t want to meet up. It is indeed ‘because we’ve always done’ but we’ve also always done that because it’s a part of human nature.

  4. Allow me to present a counter argument.

    Not everyone can work from home (assuming, that is, that the nature of their work would permit this). Some of our homes are simply unsuitable as workplaces due to design or space constraints. Then there may be conflicting activities from other family members or residents who have equally (if not more) valid demands on the place – it is their home too, after all.

    Then there is the psychological aspect. Many people hate working alone and find the presence of co-workers both supportive and enjoyable. Working with other people is part of their social life, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others like to place a physical gap between home and workplace so that they can “switch off” when they are not at work.

    We Brits spend an awful lot of our waking hours working (whether from home or in another workplace) and I would consider it equally unfair to expect people to work from home when it doesn’t suit them as it is to expect someone to suffer in an office environment that is not suited to him or her.

    I am fortunate to work in a very non-Dilbertian office (there really are such things) and I’ve made some great friends there (real friends with whom I value my relationships, not just after-work drinking buddies!). In the recent past I’ve worked from home and enjoyed that too, as I’m perfectly happy with my own company. Indeed I still run a small, very part-time (non-IT) business from home and, like Nick, have clients that I’ve never met in person thanks to the Internet. I think I’m equally productive in both environments, providing I’m doing something interesting and worthwhile.

    On balance, my preference is for the office because of the people, but if I was working in a badly-managed or oppressive environment, or doing uninspiring tasks, I’d no doubt feel differently about it. So I don’t see this issue as a case of “home working good, office bad” or vice versa.

    I think there needs to be a degree of flexibility and choice. Technology certainly helps here, allowing flexible working (part office, part home for example), reducing the need for business travel, and opening up the prospect of dispersed office-based working closer to where people live. Whatever happened to the eminently sensible concept of telecottaging, which would enable people to work in fully-resourced office environments with human contact and support, but closer to their home communities and with reduced dependence on commuting? Of course, those who are able and wish to work from home should be enabled to do so, and here the issues raised by David (together with inflexible planning and Council Tax regulations concerning working from domestic property, and other blockages) are real problems that need to be dealt with.

    What seems to be emerging from this debate is the rather unsurprising conclusion that different working environments appeal to different people. The challenge for communication technology is to allow as much flexibility as possible to permit people to work in the place and way that suits them best whilst remaining effective and productive.

    Then we need to manage the way in which people get to work to minimise the environmental impacts – this is a huge debate in its own right encompassing planning law, public transport provision and costs, the tendency of large quasi-monopolies in both the public and private sectors to centralise their operations, etc etc…I’ll keep all that for another day!

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