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Verbal Energy

Slipping into my cloak of transparency

Have telecommuting workers adopted the wrong metaphor for electronic face time?

By Ruth Walker / April 10, 2013

Marissa Mayer's edict to her staff that telecommuting as we know it has come to an end has ignited debate in the business world as well as at the company where she is now chief executive, Yahoo! (Note, dear reader: If you insist on terminal punctuation as part of your corporate name, certain sticklers will tend to take you at your word and put that name at the end of the sentence. Broker, sell the rest of my shares of Yahoo!)

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I was musing on a colleague who works remotely and sometimes provides way too much information about why something will or will not get done by the initially requested deadline. Hmm, I thought. Maybe this person should give thought to making it transparent to us whether the plumber is coming. But is transparent the right word? No, the word we're fishing for is invisible.

Transparent is what public processes should be. A government agency that accepts bids from private contractors to repair potholes or build airports and posts requirements for contractors on its website, say, should be explicit about what those requirements are. If the real requirements include having at least one relative in the department of public works, well, that may be reprehensible, but if it's posted clearly on the website, at least the agency is being transparent. You can "see through" the system to what's really going on.

But for someone trying to keep a "face to the customer" or the client or the boss, while avoiding any more actual face time than is necessary, "invisibility" is the better metaphor – and to be clear, it's the offstage stuff (the plumber's visit and such) that needs to be kept invisible.

A good cellphone network lets a customer have an extended cellphone conversation while walking the length of Main Street without being aware when his device lets go of one tower and makes contact with another. This might be described as transparent. But again, I'd suggest the transitions should be invisible – or "seamless," to borrow another apt metaphor.

The other side of invisibility for the remote worker would be visibility, but what remote workers really need to manage is availability.

That word has been around for a couple of centuries to describe the state of someone or something (office space, for example) being "at someone's disposal," as the idiom goes. That idiom sounds as if we're talking about taking out the trash. But what's meant is the idea communicated in a phrase like "At your service, madam."

That sounds swashbuckling or chivalrous; that sense of "availability," though, is a newer meaning. Back when people actually talked like that, available meant "useful" or "beneficial." That meaning lives on idiomatically mostly in the negative, as when we say something is "of no avail," or is "unavailing."

Nowadays, "available" is a status on instant message services. It's funny, the kind of service that took off as a way for adolescents to flirt with each other electronically during class has morphed into something used in the business world to keep track of colleagues who may be at Starbucks, or supervising their child's birthday party, but are still notionally "available." Anyone who's ever gotten a stern e-mail from a colleague, or worse, boss, asking "Why aren't you on IM?" will understand what I mean.

Now I've got to slip into my own cloak of transparency, er, invisibility – or maybe availability? – and get (back?) to work.


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