There it is, on the front page of today’s Financial Times, in a list of energy saving recommendations issued in a proposal by the IEA (International Energy Association). Point #5 is the simple statement: “Telecommuting: Inform public of benefits of working from home”.
The article, and it’s prominence on page 1 is prompted by the rocketing price of oil – and heightened anxiety caused by the Goldman Sachs report of prices as high as $105/barrel.
Reducing long commute distances IS a significant part of the answer. The problem though is that, as we know from the past two decades in which telecommuting programs have been tried in various forms, more, much more, is going to be needed than simply “informing the public” of its virtues. Proponents have for too long oversimplified what it’s going to take to shift the modern post-industrial workforce to accept telecommuting as their norm. Telecommuting isn’t just another commuting option – like choosing to pick up passengers that allow driving in the commute lane. It is/will come about as part of a major shift in organization design, work patterns, urban patterns and culture and will be enabled by a myriad of new technologies (already here) and more importantly, social institutions and service industries.
Of course, what I’m getting at here is the WorkClub – or to use the definition I’ve been using lately – networks of ubiquitous, shared (aggregated) work spaces that provide access to work support services and technologies, social networking and learning opportunities. And the key characteristic of the WorkClub is that it should be really close (say 5 – 10 minutes commute) to where someone LIVES (which is why they need to be ubiquitous, and provide common work systems when they are away from home (which is why they need to be a network).
So, why is telecommuting as it is mostly promoted not so simple – and therefore not succeeding to the degree that it is going to make a big enough impact on oil use. Like anything complex, the reasons are many and interrelated. Here are a few (discussed at greater length below);
1. WORKING AT HOME IS NOT THE (WHOLE) ANSWER.
2. SHIFTING THE COSTS INFRASTRUCTURAL SUPPORT FROM CORPORATIONS TO WORKERS.
3. JUSTIFYING THE SHIFT OF INFRASTRUCTURAL SUPPORT BACK TO THE CORPORATION
4. CHANGING CORPORATE STRUCTURES TO REALIZE THE FULL BENEFIT OF DISTRIBUTED WORK
5. CHANGING URBAN STRUCTURES TO FULLY ENABLE DISTRIBUTED WORK