As a blizzard blitzes the East Coast today, millions of workers sit home idle and trapped by a vagary of Mother Nature that provokes the National Weather Service to post no-travel warnings.
The economic cost of this standstill is anybody's guess, but to get a sense of the impact, consider how the federal government is in its third consecutive day of work stoppage because of the one-two weather punch the Washington, D.C., area has endured this month. And yet, as (the) USA Today notes this morning, "work continued - in homes across the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region" in a persuasive demonstration of how "seamlessly well-equipped workers can soldier on even through disruptions such as heavy snowstorms."
This particular facet of what we're seeing in today's storm is evidence that telecommuting isn't stupid. Though many corporate managers (typically old-school ones) resist the very idea that a worker they cannot see, feel and touch is more asset than liability, the personnel-management winds have shifted. There are several oft-stated arguments for a telecommuting-based national business culture. Among them: it's cheaper because people don't have to spend all that time in traffic jams and turnstile queues; it's better for morale and productivity when a worker can spend much if not most of his or her work week in a remote office rather than in a cubicle farm; it decentralizes our work force in a way that has national-security implications.
More than two years ago, MSBC.com joined a cacophony of news organizations filing similar trend-spotting stories when it published "The Quiet Revolution: Telecommuting," arguing that within a couple of year's time 14 million Americans would be working on a mostly remote basis. It included this vital caveat: "That doesn't mean everyone will be working at home all the time, a prediction made by many workforce observers just a decade ago. The U.S. worker will be a mélange of office inhabitant and work-anywhere warrior."
Likewise, Time magazine - under the evocative headline "The Last Days of Cubicle Life" - reached the following conclusion: "The need to actually show up at an office that consists of an anonymous hallway and a farm of cubicles or closed doors is just going to fade away. It's too expensive, and it's too slow. I'd rather send you a file at the end of my day (when you're in a very different time zone) and have the information returned to my desktop when I wake up tomorrow. We may never meet, but we're both doing essential work."
I've felt this way for awhile because I'm a telecommuter, working remotely from an office in my house in a placid suburb just outside New York City. My routine has been to spend roughly three half-days in the city meeting face to face with clients, associates and/or sources and interview subjects. It's a 40- to 45-minute train ride from my house to Penn Station. From there, it takes an average of about 15 minutes by subway to almost anyplace in Manhattan. Throw in a little walking and a little waiting and it's an hour and half door-to-door from my home office to wherever I'm going. That makes it a three-hour round trip, well worth the crucial in-person interaction I get from those thrice-a-week jaunts to the City So Nice They Named It Twice. Doing it five days a week, however - which I've also done for long stretches of time over the past several years - may not be the best way to invest three hours of every work day.
Of course it wouldn't even be possible for me to work on this wintriest of all days this year if not for broadband Internet, a Skype account, my cellphone, a door I can close if my snow-day kids get rowdy - if not, in short, for the fact that I'm one of those millions of "seamlessly well-equipped" telecommuters who aren't quite the oddity we used to be.
Pray the electricity doesn't go out.