For 18 years and counting, I have lived in an area long known for having the nation’s worst traffic congestion not only during rush hours, but also off-peak times. As an independent contractor, I have been able to dodge this asphalt madness with a so-called carpet commute from my bedroom to a living room office.
Los Angeles is driven by a car culture, with nearly 4 million estimated residents in the second-largest U.S. city scrambling for limited space on freeways so big that their numbers are actually preceded by the word “the” to describe them in the vernacular. The county’s population is more than double that number, while the larger metropolitan region more than triples the body count. It’s not surprising given that L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world and ground zero for California dreaming.
What made me appreciate an ability to work from home more than usual was a recent article I wrote about telecommuting. However, it also made me lament a troubling trend that has befallen legions of managers and supervisors across Corporate America.
A survey of executive recruiters, employers and job candidates cautioned that ordering remote workers back into corporate offices could alienate top talent in the executive, managerial and professional ranks. What’s more, it is happening at a time of tightening skilled labor markets.
One of my sources, a seasoned industry observer, called out AT&T, Yahoo!, Hewlett Packard and IBM’s marketing division as chief culprits. By ending work-from-home arrangements, he noted how they stood to lose millions of dollars a year they previously saved on consolidating office space and worsen traffic congestion in their respective cities.
It’s a real head-scratcher for me to think that such a counter-intuitive directive could be repeated by several respected blue-chip companies – and in the process, eviscerate years of operational efficiency, corporate goodwill, high morale and employee loyalty. My impression of this cultural change based on the interviews I conducted is that it stems from self-imposed pressure that has turned telecommuting into a convenient scapegoat for missing quarterly earnings or losing market share.
But the fact is we all operate in a virtual world wherein the line of demarcation between work and life is barely recognizable and all office workers really need is a way to get online. If texts or emails aren’t enough to complete a certain task, then there’s always conferencing calling or video-chatting services. I even remember seeing a movie featuring holograms beamed up for a corporate boardroom meeting, which now seems more like a realistic future than science fiction.
It no longer makes sense to tether people to a cubicle or office in this changing business environment, especially since U.S. workers are infamous for not using all of their vacation time and burning the midnight oil. The number of working Americans who griped about working more than 40 hours a week spiked to 26% last year from just 6% in 1974, according to government data cited in a report by The Wall Street Journal.
My view of the situation, of course, isn’t surprising. I have a dog in this fight as someone who has benefited from telecommuting for nearly half my 34-year career. But if we truly want to work faster and smarter, or at least happier and healthier, then why not let flexible work schedules offered as a valued employee benefit lead the way? It’s better than caving into a misguided notion that employees or managers must be able to literally brush up against one another at all, or most, times during the work day.