Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tribal instinct, or a lack of trust?

For Workers, It's Face Time Over PC Time


IN the early hours last Tuesday, before most New Yorkers woke to learn that a transit strike had halted their subway and bus service, Judy Breck was at her computer, getting ready to work.

"Sitting in my home studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I am remembering the last New York City transit strike 25 years ago," Ms. Breck, the author of several books on the digital age, wrote at the Web log "For 11 days in the morning I had to make my way the seven miles downtown to Wall Street, where I worked for a few hours before making my way the seven miles back home."

Ms. Breck, then a secretary at a law firm, had few options. "Working at home was limited mainly to invalids and wealthy executives," she wrote.

"Now, with mobile digital connectivity," she elaborated later in an e-mail message, "you have an office wherever you are." In theory, this is true. For millions of New Yorkers, and millions more Americans - business executives and managers, analysts, researchers, consultants and an unidentifiable number of others whose jobs require little more than a phone and a computer with an Internet connection - working from home is a real option.

But as the world saw last week, telecommuting does not appear to be a mass phenomenon in New York. Along with the thousands of restaurant, retail and service industry personnel, construction workers, street sweepers, teachers and other employees for whom connectivity has little to do with making a living, there were plenty of desk jockeys turning their white collars to the wind and making their way to offices, when they could presumably have worked from home.

Why has telecommuting never really been embraced in the way futurists once said it would? The answer has little to do with logistics and more to do with tribal phenomena like status, power, fear and ritual. It's also a function of the fact that even in the digital age, people in cities from New York to San Francisco just like to lay eyes on one another.

"If telecommuting were such a great idea, why do the Internet experts concentrate in a few small geographical areas?" said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of history and social sciences at Columbia University and the author of "The Encyclopedia of New York City."

"They, too, need the stimulation of other humans who are present in the flesh, not on a screen," he said.

As did, presumably, many of those New Yorkers who trudged across the bridges linking Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan last week.

Just how many of them were as well prepared to work at home as in the office is not known. Data from WorldatWork, a telework industry consortium, suggest that after flatlining at about 7.6 million for the last four years, the number of regular employees working at home at least one day a month jumped to 9.9 million in 2005. Tens of millions more workers - self-employed types, contract employees - swell the number who "do some type of work from home" at least one day a month to 26.1 million, although what exactly was meant by "work" was unclear.

Some big companies have embraced telecommuting. About 30 percent of AT&T's managers, for example, were working outside the traditional office as of last year.

But one need look no further than the annual Urban Mobility Study, from Texas A.&M. University, to see a countertrend as well. "Traffic congestion levels have increased in every area since 1982," this year's report states. And near the top of miserably congested cities are those hotbeds of high tech: San Francisco, Dallas, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, Austin.

"Even in a world of casual instant-messaging and near-free phone calling," said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance at Oxford University, "a shout down the hall still matters."

This is immensely frustrating to Representative Frank Wolf, a Republican of Virginia, who has spent the better part of a decade promoting telecommuting. He helped pass a 2001 bill requiring that all federal agencies make telecommuting available to eligible employees by the end of this year - a goal that will not be reached.

The benefits of telecommuting, Mr. Wolf noted in an interview, include easing traffic congestion, reducing fuel consumption and pollution, cost savings for employers and even maintaining continuity of government and the economy in the event of disaster or attack - or a labor walkout.

"So what's the magic of driving in a metal box to get to an office just to sit in front of a computer?" he asked in exasperation.

Some hurdles to telecommuting have persisted for almost 20 years. Employers, for instance, like to keep an eye on employees. Employees often fear that rewards will accrue to those dedicated stars who show up at work most often, and certainly to those who, unlike the lazy, wily telecommuter, brave the elements even during a transit strike.

But daily journeys to and from work are more than just physical. For many workers they are necessary cognitive commutes.

"It's in some ways an incredibly functional period for people getting into a work frame of mind or a home frame of mind," said Christina Nippert-Eng, a professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

"For people who really make a big distinction between work or home, they really need a bridging routine," she said. "If they don't figure out how to do that, telecommuting won't work."

Just how many New Yorkers sought out their home-to-work bridges last week on a literal span of steel and concrete, and how many found them in a bowl of Häagen-Dazs and an hour of "People's Court" is not known, but what seems certain is that for all of the promise of telecommuting, the lure of the group - of the center - persists.

That's as true in New York as anywhere.

"In an era when so much of our communication is electronic, the value of a face-to-face meeting has actually intensified," said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, "since the phone and e-mail have become routine while a meeting reflects the importance of the person or topic."

And, Professor Moss added, "the reason Manhattan rents are as high as they are is because people want to be near people - there is an enormous productivity gain when people have access to people."

Copyright 2005The New York Times Company


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