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Some Notes on the Experience of Being a Teleworker

Thomas Erickson

Erickson’s major research interest is designing computer systems that “fit gracefully into peoples’ lives.” He believes that “computers ought to enable people to focus on their work rather than on technology and ought to simplify life rather than add complexity and stress."
     This essay describes Erickson's experience as a teleworker at Apple Computer from fall of 1993 through summer 1997. He wrote the piece for a panel on telework in which participants were asked to address three questions: First, what are the consequences of working from one's home; second, what are the consequences of extended separation from one's colleagues; and, third, what is the future of telework?

 

1. The consequences of working from my home

 One of the most prominent features of my life as a teleworker is the rhythmic nature of my work. I travel to Cupertino [California] and have a week of intense social interaction‑-both planned and spontaneous. This interaction results in a bunch of informal agreements: to read someone's paper, critique a prototype, develop an idea that came up in discussion, or just talk more over the phone.

 When I return to Minneapolis I shift into focused work mode, in which I have time to read, reflect, write, and carry out other tasks. The informal agreements made during my social week now partially structure my remote time. I don't mean to imply that remote work is calm and uninterrupted‑-far from it. Even at a distance I am still interrupted by phone or email, I still experience radically rearranged priorities, and I still participate in the occasional, bureaucratically induced "fire drill." The degree of interruption, however, is considerably less than when I am on site. Though it's not all-or-none, there is a real rhythm to my activity that I find extremely energizing and productive. This was not something I had anticipated before starting telework.

Tied in with this work rhythm‑-both as a cause and consequence‑-is the fact that whatever location I'm at inhibits some activities and facilitates others. These inhibitions and facilitations are just what you'd expect: spontaneous conversations with colleagues are easier on site; time to write and think is easier to find at home or on the plane. Naturally, the nature of many of my activities shifts to accommodate my work rhythm.

Probably the chief consequence of working from my home is the softening of the boundaries between work and home life. For years pundits have predicted the merging of work and leisure, home and office. But before I became a teleworker, when I worked full time at Apple in Cupertino, it felt to me like work was infiltrating leisure but not the opposite. Now, my situation feels more balanced. A big part of this difference is that, for the first time in my adult life, I live and work in the same place. I can shovel snow while a large file downloads or go upstairs and work at midnight if I can't sleep. For me, this is pleasant. I can imagine, however, situations‑-when work or home life isn't going well‑-where this merger could be a considerable drawback.

Overall, I find that the rhythmic nature of my work life, the softer boundaries between work and home, and the ability to live and work in the same place‑-all conspire to increate my quality of life.

2. The consequences of extended physical separation from colleagues

I'll being with a story. I was on a speaker phone in a special meeting with about two dozen colleagues. Because it was such a large meeting, everybody was able to say a little, but no one got all his or her issues on the table. After two hours, the meeting ended as scheduled. Usually, at this point, I jump in and say thanks for calling, everyone says goodbye, and then I hang up. Or the leader of the meeting says goodbye. In this instance, however, I missed my change to jump in, the leader of the meeting forgot about me, and the meeting ended with me still "there" on the speaker phone.

What happened then was quite interesting. When the meeting "ended," everyone burst into conversation. After all, the participants had been building up things to say for two hours. My speakerphone is very sophisticated, equipped with directional microphones that home in on the person speaking. With all the talking, they were unable to focus. I got snatches of conversation. Because I knew the people and issues, however, I could guess at a lot of what was being said: they were making meetings, clarifying positions, apologizing, and so forth. It was an intriguing way to "see" a cross section of my work community. It struck me that this "after-meeting" was incredibly productive‑-a lot of the conversation potential built up during the meeting was only now being realized. I was also struck by the fact that I almost always miss this part of the meeting.

This story illustrates a basic problem with working remotely: technology doesn't capture the periphery well. Meetings don't really have sharp temporal edges (there is a "pre-meeting event too), but we often use technology as though they do. Similarly, space doesn't have edges either, except when you're using video technology.

Another problem this story illustrates is loss of visibility and spontaneity. In the meeting, I became invisible locally. Not only was I not literally present, but I was not a prominent participant in the conversation because it is difficult to signal for a turn or to verbally slip into a tiny gap in the rapid, unstructured give and take of group discussion. My options were either to be silent or to vocally interrupt the conversation‑-to speak until others fell silent (since using visual channels to negotiate the acceptability of an interruption are not possible). The issue of visibility also occurs at a larger scale: losing long-term organizational visibility is also a danger. I am often not visibly present when my group's work is presented to management, other groups, or outside visitors. Even if I am present by phone, I am still less able to participate in the spontaneous banter, and I still miss the pre- and post-meeting interactions. While technology supports intentional direct interactions, it is much weaker at supporting spontaneous interactions‑-in part, because it can't capture the periphery where spontaneous interactions often occur.

At the moment, the solutions to these sorts of problems are, for me, primarily in the social realm: I get support from my colleagues, who, for example, may call me back if the after-meeting conversation becomes important. Also, although spontaneous interactions are rarer for me, they're more intense and energizing because of their rarity. So, for example, on my week at Apple I have lots of hallway conversations because both I and others know it's a rare opportunity. In fact, I engage in "planned spontaneity"‑-I wander the hallways on purpose to bump into people. I also have a set of customs‑-people I regularly breakfast with, for instance. In this way, I maintain my social network. At home in Minneapolis, I have a local network of colleagues with whom to gossip, toss ideas around, and banter. They serve as a substitute for that aspect of workplace life.

3. The future of telework.

I think we're likely to see an increase in telework in the future. An organization that needs less physical office space has an economic advantage. The cost of telephone and network infrastructure for my remote office, and of the monthly week-long trips to California is considerably less than the cost of providing a physical office in Cupertino. At the same time, the number of professionals who are expreiencing some form of the "two-body problem," shows no sign of decreasing. An organization that can readily accommodate telework has a wider pool of talent to draw from, another advantage in a time and industry where highly specialized and skilled employees play a vital role. And, for me at least, the little benefits like living with my wife, actually inhabiting a neighborhood, and having more focused work time, vastly outweigh the inconveniences.

I began teleworking with low expectations, in part based on previous experience as a "teleporter" (Victoria Belloti's term for a person who works at home one day or so a week). But my experience as what Bellotti calls a telepath ( a person who is remote for extensive periods of time) has been very different, in part because the permanence of the telework arrangement required my colleagues and me to shift our work practices. These shifts, of course, had their costs but they also came with benefits. The principal moral I take away from my telework experience is that the social is more important than the technical. Telework practice has to be learned by the participants (both local and remote) and supported by the organization. This is nothing new: people and organizations have had to learn how to incorporate everything from telephnes to copiers in their work practices, and I see nothing unusually daunting about telework.

Finally, it's interesting to speculate on new tele-organizational forms. I imagine that organizational activity might take on a more rhythmic character: suppose there were lots of remote workers who would periodically converge for a period of intense socialization, exchange, and synthesis. This is not unlike the way professional organizations work: it's evident how the annual rhythms of such associations catalyze various professional activities, and it seems likely to me that the quicker rhythms of tele-organizations might produce benefits similar to those that I've described in my case. I expect that there are a lot of apropos cultural models and practices‑-from nomadic or migratory cultures, for instance‑-that might be adopted to telework organizations.

If this shift toward telework comes about, it will also be interesting to speculate about the coevolution of civic life driven by people living and working in the same neighborhood. It's easy to construct visions‑-taking our cue from Jane Jacobs--of a neighborhood renaissance driven by full-time occupancy of what were once bedroom communities. I'm not meaning to claim that telework is a panacea of any sort. Such a scenario would doubtless come with its own associated set of costs, but in my experience, the benefits have outweighed the costs.