It all started when a friend decided he wanted to learn to surf. He was a hot property in the Web industry, but his earning power, though substantial in London, was questionable in Hawaii. We both looked at the map and wondered if anybody out there would need his skills, and, more to the point, would the day-rate pay for the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed?
So my friend left for the islands while a large Web project started back here in London. It needed top specialist skills, but on only a medium budget. Considering that life in Hawaii is somewhat less financially testing than here in London, his day rates were just within the budget. OK, it did involve setting him up with a mobile phone, second telephone line, a laptop, a printer and fax, but over and above that it was a surprisingly smooth transition. So forget the cottage in Wales, with its traditional image of telecommuting - think global, and find the sunniest spot in the world with a solid Internet service provider.
Another citizen of the global telecommunity is Jean Marie Hullot, former chief information officer for NeXT Inc. Jean Marie is in his forties and in the process of adopting a child, therefore his lifestyle is not portable. He lives in France, but his day job is technology director for a new Web tool company based in Palo Alto, California. Jean Marie directs the technical side of the project, monitors performance and co-ordinates research efforts on the new product, all from an attic in his beautiful house in a leafy suburb of Paris.
I met him not too long ago at a conference in Bangkok, where he was working close to the beach on a paper on real-time graph generations for the Web. Sun-tanned and focused, with his laptop in tow, he looked free as a bird, but employed at the same time. He is an extremely sociable guy who is happy in France, can't stand Californian food and dislikes driving, but he loves Silicon Valley's passion for technology. He was able to reach a happy compromise that finds him telecommuting from France to the United States. Considering the current disastrous state of French economy, it might be a good idea for more of the long-suffering French workers to commute virtually to London, New York or San Francisco.
Here in the UK, the growth in telecommuting has been achieved without government subsidies but rather by ISPs such as Global, Easynet and Demon. An increasing number of British companies (Burton, Mercury, British Airways) allow their staff remote-dial access, funding their connectivity and thus promoting flexible working hours, better communications and increased quality of life. Considering the amount of time these teleworkers must be spending online, BT should seriously consider subsidising the networking of more companies and then take its cut from the charges run up by remote- dial users.
However, there are other major requirements besides phone lines and ISPs if telecommuting is to work on a large scale. Groupware tools used for collaborative virtual working are still primitive. It is necessary to know who is working on which document, and when it has been last updated. It is necessary to know the correct versions, we must use the same terminology, and we must be able to share documents so that the conference calls are about the same diagram. We need access to directories, and must have full enterprise information systems at our fingertips.
Modest requirements, aren't they? I think so, but not my groupware supplier.
How long before more of us will be in the position to chuck the Northern Line and zoom off to somewhere sunny with a good telephone line or two? Judging by the rapidly increasing property prices in and around London, there must be more to life than paying through the nose for a tiny cottage in Surrey from which to telecommute. So quit now, get a laptop and a freelance contract, then move as far away as possible to conquer the global work market and experiment with the New Lifestyle. Physical proximity to the workplace is only a limitation of a rigid mind. Telecommuting does not require being adventurous, but simply learning the new working practices for the changing global economy.
Next week I am off to Maui in the Hawaiian islands to investigate the local ISDN pricing. Meanwhile, if you have stories to tell about your experiences on telecommuting, contact me at email@example.com