The American Telecommuting Association

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Old Thinking Vs. New Thinking

The plow. The loom. The steam engine. The automobile. The airplane. The telephone. The fax.

All these technological advancements and countless others have brought immeasurable wealth, convenience, and capability to millions of people who have learned to use them. Without any one of them, daily life and work would be far more difficult and less fulfilling than it is today.

It’s up to you to decide whether or not you are going to let the next advance pass you by! As Thomas Edison once said: Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

History tells us the introduction of these major advances faced equally major challenges. Each advance was initially rejected by the great majority of people who could benefit from it. Each one required years to grab hold, take root, and flower. Even the most modern of these examples, the fax machine -- a device that is remarkably simple to understand and use -- started quietly and began spreading slowly.

For example, fax machines were already in widespread use within certain business circles during the early 1980s. But it took another decade or longer for the fax machine to become commonplace in nearly every office.

Why? As the proverb tells us: All things seem difficult before they seem easy. Certain people were just slow to change their thinking about the fax. Some people still haven’t.

Today we face another sea change in the ways of working and doing business: the shift to telecommuting.

"Telecommuting" and other forms of "working at a distance" have been thoroughly proven and are already commonplace among millions of steadfastly practical workers. Years from now, telecommuting and other forms of "working at a distance" will be as widespread and unremarkable as all the other advancements we now take for granted. But some people will get there years earlier.

In an attempt to shorten the usual human learning cycle as it applies to telecommuting and other forms of "working at a distance," here’s a brief comparison of the old thinking and the new thinking that often surrounds and sometimes obscures this new way of working.


  Old Thinking

New Thinking

"I can’t be sure someone’s working unless I actually see them busy at their desks."


It’s easy to make sure someone is working hard when they’re out of sight. Simply agree on what’s to be done, in small, understandable tasks. Agree on a deadline for each task, and how it’s to be measured or evaluated. If a task gets done on time, and meets specifications, that’s clear proof the individual was working hard while away from the office. And if a deadline should slip, you’re no worse off than if a deadline slips in the office. 

 "I can’t as easily or effectively control the efforts of people who are working in a different location than I am."


Sure you can. It just takes a little extra thinking and planning. The best ways to control what people are doing on the days they are "working at a distance" is to agree on their "deliverables" and their deadlines. Once you get comfortable doing this, you’ll find it works so well that you’ll want to apply the same techniques to people who are working in the centralized office. It helps make them more effective, too.

"I can’t be sure someone’s going to stay loyal unless they’re with me full time."


Loyalty based on blinders and limited options is not as solid, not as certain as loyalty based on a heartfelt desire to stay with and continue to support another person. In fact, if you try to limit other people’s options, you must always worry they will suddenly break through the barriers, find out about something better and leave you like a shot. But loyalty based on knowing what other opportunities exist, plus a desire to stay with your present boss and your present organization is loyalty that survives over the long term. It’s the only kind of loyalty that really matters.

Besides, you pay a heavy cost to maintain a full time employee who isn’t fully employed doing the work for which he or she is best qualified. That’s what produces professionals making their own copies and experts in one field handling relatively simple work in another. It’s an expensive strategy, and it’s a good way to frustrate and repel the best qualified people in your organization.

 " 'Working at a distance' is a good deal for the worker, but not for the organization."


"Working at a distance" and telecommuting turn out to be win-win-win situations for everyone involved. The organization cuts its overhead, retains people longer, makes people happier in their jobs, and increases productivity. Meanwhile, the individual feels better, works harder, saves money, avoids frustration and travel irritations, and feels strongly motivated to do a great job so he or she can keep avoiding that unnecessary travel to work. Not so incidentally, society also benefits through reduced use of non-renewable fuels, and less pressure on the transportation infrastructure. 

 " 'Working at a distance' creates big new costs for the organization."


Installing telephones and fax machines also demands an investment. But it pays off big-time for those who make the plunge. In most cases, the start-up investment in telecommuting and other "working at a distance" techniques doesn’t have to be a large one. In fact, all a telecommuter really needs to be productive is paper and a pencil! But if computers, faxes, modems, and other tools help the individual be more productive at the office, they probably will help the individual be more productive while working away from the office, too. Fortunately, in most situations the desk, chair, telephone, and computer the individual needs to work at home already exist. So the start-up costs are relatively small.


" 'Working at a distance' is inefficient because of all the distractions and time-wasters at home."


Working at home or at a part-time office near home is actually much less distracting than working in the typical company’s centralized office, where there are far more distractions per minute of working time. Just consider the telephones constantly ringing, the nearby conversations wafting into your work area, the frequent interruptions by people you can’t ignore who want to talk about some other task -- or something entirely unrelated to work, such as the whirl of office birthday parties and other social events, even the time spent at the beginning of the day getting ready to work and closing down from work at the end of the day. Most homes are relatively quiet and private compared to the typical company office.


" 'Working at a distance' is expensive because all the resources of the office must be duplicated at home."


Not true. It takes only a little planning to know what resources you’re going to need on the days you work at home, and to have them with you on those days. It’s also not that difficult and much more efficient (for both parties) to schedule times to talk with people who have ideas or information you need, rather than just "drop in" on people who happen to be working near you in the centralized office. You can almost always have these conversations over the telephone. Also, more and more information is available over the Internet, or on computer disk, so it’s very easy to access the resources you need from wherever you happen to be working.


"If people start working from home, they’ll never come back to the office."


Most people enjoy the social interaction they experience in centralized offices. And of course, things like creating trust between team members can be done best only in face-to-face situations. So there’s little danger of office buildings lying neglected and entirely empty any time soon. But there are good reasons to cut back on the vast troops that companies have been hiring to populate their centralized offices. Were he alive today, Abraham Lincoln probably would have said: "You can have almost all of the people telecommuting some of the time, and some of the people telecommuting all of the time. But you probably can’t have all of the people telecommuting all of the time."


"If some of our people start working from home, the rest of our workforce will feel slighted or mistreated."


If this were true, it would tend to prove telecommuting is a good thing that more people want to do. It doesn’t make sense to deprive everyone of a good thing just because some people can’t do it. That’s like saying no one should drive until everyone has a car, or no one should fax until everyone has a fax machine. Early adapters can and should reap the competitive advantages and immediate benefits of telecommuting and "working at a distance" before the rest of the business population wakes up to the opportunities and cost-savings it provides.


"If people start working from home, they’ll stop working for the organization and help our competitors, or go into business for themselves."


Not if they’re treated well and encouraged to stay loyal. Futurists say this is the direction in which business is moving. They point to the Hollywood film industry as a model. The big studios that once kept everyone under contract proved economically unwieldy, and have now given way to companies that have only core employees. They contract for specific services on specific projects with professional and highly skilled individuals who form a web of independent contractors whose main livelihood comes from serving the studios. If you want to carry the overhead of a full time team, you’ll never match the cost-effectiveness of a lean and mean organization that, project by project, pays only for the services and employment time it actually requires and sells.


"If you’re not doing it at the office, it just isn’t 'real work' ".


There was a time -- thousands of years, in fact -- when all "real work" was done at home, on the family farm. But with the onset of centralized steam engines powering centralized production equipment, people and organizations slowly adjusted to a new system that required employees to gather in one place at one time to accomplish their goals. This was the factory. Today, that blip in history is rapidly fading, and we’re decentralizing again. It just makes more sense. It always has. There are plenty of opportunities to do more, with less, in far flung locations. The centralized factory -- whether it’s pounding out machine parts or paperwork -- simply costs too much to survive much longer.


"If you’re staying home from the office, you’re in a rut. It takes office contact to stimulate new ideas, creativity, professionalism, and high levels of energy."


This is partly true. But with today’s vast and efficient communications web, you can live and work in a remote valley of Austria and in a single day have more contact, more stimulation from friends and colleagues around the world than an office worker might experience in a week of "face to face." Contact and stimulation are no longer linked to propinquity. We’re rapidly building more of a mental, and less of a physical, world of work.


"Coming into the office to work creates discipline and mental toughness. Anyone who avoids it is loafing, or at least missing one big benefit of holding a job."


The "discipline and mental toughness" derive not merely from being in the office, but from overcoming the adversity associated with getting to the office and dealing with the difficulties it presents. While it’s often true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, there are plenty of difficulties and adversity in the world of business without going to extra trouble to experience the additional ones that come with working in the office, particularly when they aren’t necessary.


"People working at home simply can’t coordinate as well as people who all work at the same time and same place."


Not true. There was a time when people led simpler lives, and they were comfortable with events happening in orderly sequences. And it’s certainly true that coordinating people who "work at a distance" is a little more complex than sticking your head out of your office and shouting: "Everyone in my office, now!"

But today, we’re geared up for a more complicated life. It’s commonplace for people to coordinate their actions via conference calls, e-mails, faxes, web sites, and other communications technology. And even if they are convenient, impromptu meetings tend to be far less efficient than a well-coordinated, well-prepared conference among people who happen to be working in far flung locations.


"It’s chaotic to have people working different hours at different places."


Yes, to some degree. But the old way of doing things in an orderly fashion is out the window anyway. The watchwords of success in today’s business world are flexibility, catering to customers’ needs, offering individualized products and service. Without planing and coordination, this approach leads to a chaotic situation, even if everyone is working in the same room. With planning and coordination, chaos is minimized, even if people on your team are working thousands of miles apart.



Telecommuting can be broadly defined to include any method for working productively "at a distance" from the traditional office. The title of "telecommuter" can be applied to everyone from computer programmers in Denver reporting to an employer in Australia, to an executive who stays at home one morning to study a complex contract, to a data-entry clerk who works on a desktop in her spare bedroom, to a sales person who rarely leaves the territory in which he lives and works.

Already many large firms have their phones answered in Kansas or Ireland. They can just as easily have their graphics, advertising, market planning and analysis, and other information-intensive activities done by telecommuting workers equipped with advanced technology and supported by the "information highway."

If you think back to the coming of the fax to your own office, you might find an important lesson in that process. In all likelihood, key people delayed the initial coming of the fax, through reluctance, inaction, hesitation to make a decision, fear of the costs, and a totally human resistance to doing old things in new ways. Eventually, they became comfortable with the fax machine, and after using it for a while each and every one of them probably exclaimed, for indisputably good reasons: "I don’t know how we survived all those years without one!"

Across the nation, many years after ten percent of the business population had already become firm believers in the fax, the other ninety percent were still mailing or overnighting copies to each other and trying to explain or read documents aloud to each other via the telephone.

It’s the same with telecommuting. Today, more than ten million employees and their employers have already learned -- often after years of reluctance, inaction, hesitation to make a decision, fear of the costs, and a totally human resistance to doing old things in new ways -- how easy and effective it is to avoid that long trip into the office on certain days. With people becoming more and more comfortable with the tools and techniques of "working at a distance," variations on the theme of telecommuting have become cost-effective and viable enough to make sense to both large and small organizations. But other millions of key people who have the power to make or prevent changes in working methods still feel the only way to get work done is to have someone doing it in front of you, or at least nearby.

New thinking will eventually win out over old thinking. History tells us it’s only a question of time. We’re simply in the midst of a filtering process to see which organizations are first to adopt the new ways of thinking and gain the competitive advantages that result.

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Last Updated: August 2, 2006
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