Of all the changes wrought by digital technology, the most dramatic is a new idea of workplace. Thanks to such devices as wireless laptops, many nonmanual jobs can now be done almost anywhere – at home, in a car, or even on a park bench.
This new work freedom, properly handled, has the power to transform business, government, and home life. Telecommuters – those who work at home or on the road with no office at all – now number between 28 million and 32 million, according to some estimates, although an exact count is difficult. Whatever their numbers, they thrive professionally on text-messaging, videoconferencing, or any of the latest advances in electronic communications.
Cutting out that round-trip commute to the office – which averages about 23 miles – can save nearly $1,000 a year in gasoline and avoid putting more than 6,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
It's one small step each person can make toward reducing what President Bush calls "America's addiction to oil."
Recent hearings in Congress focused on telecommuting as a way to deal with traffic, terrorism, oil dependency, and global warming. Some participants noted that remote employees make it possible for offices to operate during a serious storm, terrorist attack, or other emergency.
Telecommuting helps some parents better balance career and family. It enables older workers to defer retirement and gives rural residents more ways to earn money. At the same time it broadens work opportunities for the disabled.
Supporters cite other benefits, such as improved productivity and greater employee satisfaction. Teleworking also represents an alternative to outsourcing.
Rather than sending jobs overseas, some companies turn to "homesourcing." A home-based customer-service representative can act as a one-person call center. Their ranks are expected to triple by 2010.
Despite these advantages, many issues remain. Telecommuters who work for an employer in New York State but live elsewhere can be taxed twice if their state also taxes income. And the mobile office requires more trust between workers and bosses.
Some would-be teleworkers find resistance from skeptical managers who insist "if I can't see the whites of your eyes, you must not be working." Remote workers understand the importance of putting in regular "face time," not only to break their isolation but to maintain good ties with bosses and colleagues. Managers can help by devising guidelines for measuring the output and productivity of telecommuters, keeping healthy relationships, and managing workflow creatively. Many teleworkers find they need a new type of self-discipline – either to stay focused or, as often happens, to avoid working far too long.
For many workers, a successful career does not always mean punching a clock, being tethered to a cubicle every day, or donning a dress-for-success wardrobe.
As legions of teleworkers are proving, meetings can be held remotely and excellent work can be done in unlikely places at unconventional hours – even at the kitchen table in a robe and slippers at 10 p.m. It's just one way to help cool the planet.