In the brave new world, itpays to stay at home

Why go into the office if youdon't need to? In hi-tech California, workers are being encouraged to work fromthe house
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ARECENTLY published study concluded that only a third of all Californians holdwhat could be regarded as a regular job, where "regular job" meant"works a full-time day shift on the employer'spremises".

ARECENTLY published study concluded that only a third of all Californians holdwhat could be regarded as a regular job, where "regular job" meant"works a full-time day shift on the employer'spremises".

Now, what we wacky Californians are up to may not meanmuch to hard-working Britons like you. This is, after all, theland of Mickey Mouse (works nights and weekends), Madonna(independent contractor) and even stranger creatures, with odderhabits, like many of us in the software industry (don't ask).It probably comes as no surprise that the folks left over when Americacouldn't go any farther West have unusual work habits.

But Californiansas a whole may not deserve the bad rap that spills over from some of our morenotorious residents. By and large, Californians are a relativelyconservative lot - don't forget that politicians such as Ronald Reaganhave enjoyed success here (but there I go again on the topic of weirdCalifornians).

And the new work paradigms are not so much becausewe're odd, but because, in my humble opinion, technology ischanging the world, and that change is happening here at least a little aheadof elsewhere.

Two-thirds of Californians either work at home at leastpart of the time, or are paid as contractors or work nights or are otherwiseavoiding "regular" work. A big part of this has to do with the natureof work in this state - we all work, and we tend to put in a lot ofhours.

As a result, businesses that serve us have to stay openlater, or on weekends, so we can find time to visit them. Thatexplains a lot of the "irregulars" in the workforce.

A lot of jobsrequire the presence of the worker: hard to imagine short- order cooks orcab drivers telecommuting given the current state of modem technology. Butother jobs like writing, or making graphics for websites or programming orall kinds of office tasks, can happen most anywhere. These areinformation workers, and they now make up two-thirds of the Americanworkforce.

In fact, when you think about it, there's no realreason for a lot of people to do what they do in the office. Many largeCalifornian corporations have moved so-called back-office functions toless expensive states, where salaries and buildings are cheaper. Whichmakes me wonder why they didn't drop with the buildings all together and movethe jobs into the homes of willing workers.

One reason, of course,is managers. Managers don't have a job unless they have people to bossaround. But the nature of a lot of jobs is that it's easy to tell ifthey've been done, and they may get done better without amicro-manager breathing down the worker's neck.

Take thiscolumn. It'll be bad wherever I write it, but the expert editors atThe Independent can resuscitate sense, syntax, proper British spellingand deep meaning from the incoming string of ASCII characters, regardless ofwhere 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 whenit's convenient for them (probably not at 4:11am).

They canalways find me by e-mail or mobile phone to answer questions ("Justwhat are you implying by this Mickey-Madonna thing,anyway?"), and the arrangement saves The Independent's ownersfrom paying the bill to provide a desk, a computer, heat, light and asecure, ergonomic, stress- free environment for me to workin.

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 thatworks well for both sides. For one thing, it's not a good idea tohave correspondents who cover topics such as Silicon Valley, or, say,Russian politics, sitting in the office in London. There is a lot thatthey might miss by not being where the action is.

But, it seems to methat there are a lot of good reasons to extend this thinking to other workers aswell. A lot of office tasks don't require physical presence in the office- they just require secure access to figures or files sitting on corporateservers. Since a lot of this work is already being handled over networks bysubsidiaries in low-cost-of-living states, the data-movingpart is already happening.

By moving the office desk into the worker'shome, the employer saves the bricks-and-mortar costs, while theemployee gains flexibility to do things such as remain a wage-earner whileraising small children. This can also translate to benefits such as fewercars on the roads and, consequently, less air pollution.

Infact, a computer company I once worked for had a secure way to extend itsnetwork over the Internet called a Virtual Private Network or VPN, which usesstrong encryption to protect data as it moves over the public network. Fellowworkers and I would exchange e-mail, arrange meetings and collaborate onprojects, and often we didn't really know who was in the office and whowas not. It was the kind of place where off-the-wall thinkingwas, at times, very highly valued.

For all I know, Mickey andMadonna were on the team. Come to think of it, they must havebeen.