Network: In the new world, it pays to stay home
Why go into the office if you don't need to? In hi-tech California, workers are being encouraged to work from the house
Monday 13 September 1999
Now, what we wacky Californians are up to may not mean much to hard-working Britons like you. This is, after all, the land of Mickey Mouse (works nights and weekends), Madonna (independent contractor) and even stranger creatures, with odder habits, like many of us in the software industry (don't ask). It probably comes as no surprise that the folks left over when America couldn't go any farther West have unusual work habits.
But Californians as a whole may not deserve the bad rap that spills over from some of our more notorious residents. By and large, Californians are a relatively conservative lot - don't forget that politicians such as Ronald Reagan have enjoyed success here (but there I go again on the topic of weird Californians).
And the new work paradigms are not so much because we're odd, but because, in my humble opinion, technology is changing the world, and that change is happening here at least a little ahead of elsewhere.
Two-thirds of Californians either work at home at least part of the time, or are paid as contractors or work nights or are otherwise avoiding "regular" work. A big part of this has to do with the nature of work in this state - we all work, and we tend to put in a lot of hours.
As a result, businesses that serve us have to stay open later, or on weekends, so we can find time to visit them. That explains a lot of the "irregulars" in the workforce.
A lot of jobs require the presence of the worker: hard to imagine short- order cooks or cab drivers telecommuting given the current state of modem technology. But other jobs like writing, or making graphics for websites or programming or all kinds of office tasks, can happen most anywhere. These are information workers, and they now make up two-thirds of the American workforce.
In fact, when you think about it, there's no real reason for a lot of people to do what they do in the office. Many large Californian corporations have moved so-called back-office functions to less expensive states, where salaries and buildings are cheaper. Which makes me wonder why they didn't drop with the buildings all together and move the jobs into the homes of willing workers.
One reason, of course, is managers. Managers don't have a job unless they have people to boss around. But the nature of a lot of jobs is that it's easy to tell if they've been done, and they may get done better without a micro-manager breathing down the worker's neck.
Take this column. It'll be bad wherever I write it, but the expert editors at The Independent can resuscitate sense, syntax, proper British spelling and deep meaning from the incoming string of ASCII characters, regardless of where I sat as I pounded it out. I can work when it's convenient for me (currently it's 4:11am in London), and they can edit it when it's convenient for them (probably not at 4:11am).
They can always find me by e-mail or mobile phone to answer questions ("Just what are you implying by this Mickey-Madonna thing, anyway?"), and the arrangement saves The Independent's owners from paying the bill to provide a desk, a computer, heat, light and a secure, ergonomic, stress- free environment for me to work in.
So I'm free to work in a cold, dark, dangerous place, but that's not the point. There's a lot about the arrangement that works well for both sides. For one thing, it's not a good idea to have correspondents who cover topics such as Silicon Valley, or, say, Russian politics, sitting in the office in London. There is a lot that they might miss by not being where the action is.
But, it seems to me that there are a lot of good reasons to extend this thinking to other workers as well. A lot of office tasks don't require physical presence in the office - they just require secure access to figures or files sitting on corporate servers. Since a lot of this work is already being handled over networks by subsidiaries in low-cost-of-living states, the data-moving part is already happening.
By moving the office desk into the worker's home, the employer saves the bricks-and-mortar costs, while the employee gains flexibility to do things such as remain a wage-earner while raising small children. This can also translate to benefits such as fewer cars on the roads and, consequently, less air pollution.
In fact, a computer company I once worked for had a secure way to extend its network over the Internet called a Virtual Private Network or VPN, which uses strong encryption to protect data as it moves over the public network. Fellow workers and I would exchange e-mail, arrange meetings and collaborate on projects, and often we didn't really know who was in the office and who was not. It was the kind of place where off-the-wall thinking was, at times, very highly valued.
For all I know, Mickey and Madonna were on the team. Come to think of it, they must have been.
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