Tim Hugo: Telework Champion

Let me be clear up front: Telework is not a panacea for anything. While the practice does show potential for reducing the number of commuting trips — thus relieving traffic congestion, burning less gasoline and emitting fewer pollutants — there are limits to how much large organizations are willing to let their employees work at home.

Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reports today, several high-profile companies that promoted telework and telecommuting are rethinking the merits of telework and have called some of their home-based workers back to the office. Working solo at home is not conducive, it appears, to collaboration and team building. Meanwhile, one of the nation’s biggest telework promoters, the federal government, posted a 7.3 percent drop in teleworkers between 2005 and 2006, due in part to a recall by the Interior Department.

Despite that significant caveat, I believe we will see an inexorable increase in the number of teleworkers, even if follows a path of two steps forward, one step backward. Here are some reasons why:

  • New technologies, such as inexpensive, quality videoconferencing, will improve communication between teleworkers and their office-bound mates, providing the facial cues and body language absent in e-mail and telephone conversations.
  • The “green” movement is gaining momentum. Telework is as green as Saint Patrick: It conserves energy by reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled and enabling organizations to shrink the size of their offices, thus cutting HVAC and lighting costs.
  • The knowledge economy continues to evolve to more flexible labor markets, in which large organizations rely increasingly upon contract workers who do some, if not most, of their work from home.
  • As baby boomers retire, creating a chronic labor shortage, employers will compete for employees by providing them more work-life balance. Typically, that balance means more flexible hours and work locations, including telework.

We will see more telework in the future. And, while we must be careful not to expect too much, too fast, from this practice, Virgina lawmakers need to take reasonable measures to encourage it.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has struck the right balance with recent legislation that he sponsored. In these three bills, which have sailed through the General Assembly and now await the governor’s signature, Hugo doesn’t fall prey to the legislator’s usual temptation of, “If we want something, let’s subsidize it.” One bill, HB 1017, would create an office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance under the Secretary of Technology. States the bill summary:

The goals of the Office are to encourage telework as a family-friendly, business-friendly public policy that promotes workplace efficiency and reduces strain on transportation infrastructure. In conjunction with efforts to promote telework, the Office shall work with public and private entities to develop widespread access to broadband services.

A second bill, HB 1018, provides a definition of telework, while a third, HB 2021, Establishes a goal for state agencies, except for the Department of State Police, to have 20 percent of their eligible workforce telecommuting by January 1, 2010.

Bacon’s bottom line: These measures are entirely appropriate. No subsidies here, no tax credits. The Commonwealth will step up its backing for broadband deployment, indispensable of telework, across the state. And the state will swallow its own medicine, promoting telework within its own workforce. As long as that 20 percent goal is a target, not a hard requirement plucked from thin air, the law is entirely appropriate.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I once worked in a virtual company that was spread out in small offices, including the customers sites, all over the country.

    I believe the driver behind telework will be more satellite offices. These will allow the necessary infrastructure, and team co-location necessary for collaboration.

    I don’t think we will have a chronic labor shortage. What we will have is immigration. Either that, or we will discover we don’t need to do anywhere near as much work.

    Surprisingly, conserving work isn’t something that conservationists or environmentalists have caught on to yet. It is a primary way of reducing the use of resources.

    Most still seem to think that we can reduce the use of resources without reducing work, somehow. As far as I’m concerned reducing the use of resources without reducing work kind of defeats the whole point, but we haven’t reconciled green thinking with the puritan work ethic.


    And God forbid we should get to the point where we have to pay people not to work and consume.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    “the Office shall work with public and private entities to develop widespread access to broadband services.”

    Isn’t that what the marketing department at FIOS and other services does? Or will they actually provide braodband “assistance”?

    How are they going to encourage telework without a carrot or a stick??

    “Gee, I wish you would let your employees stay home.”?

    And then of course there is the obvious question – Where will the office be located.

    This has all the earmarks of a feel good – do nothing.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “As baby boomers retire, creating a chronic labor shortage, employers will compete for employees by providing them more work-life balance.”

    It has been my experience that once someone retires they are not replaced. Rather, their job duties are split-up b/w other workers who know how to do the job.

    This is good for the bottom line. Two or three people pick-up the workload and make the same amount of money. The company saves money by not hiring another worker with the same knowledge/skills. The person that is hired is often at the bottom of the ladder and the cycle starts over.

  4. Technically speaking, this telework idea seems to have a lot going for it. I see four key technologies – all progressing very rapidly.

    Lenses – the crucial component of the cameras that provide the transmit side of a videoconference. I am sure that all of us remember the era of cell phones that were cellular phones. Now they are many things including digital cameras. One big reason is advances in lens technology. A 7 Megapixel camera can be bought today for about $100. Stunning is the only word for that. Kids make movies and post them on YouTube. One big reason – much cheaper video equipment.

    Displays. You’ve heard of Moore’s Law? The number of transitors that can be inexpesively put on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. This is why computers get more and more powerful while costing less and less. I personally believe Mr. Moore’s observation is worthy of a Nobel Prize. Display price / performance is governed by Nishimura’s Law, Kitahara’s Law and Odawara’s Law. These three engineering samauris explain why you have a flat panel TV on your wall today. This would have been incievable 10 years ago. It will be dramatically better and cheaper in 10 more years and display technology is the crucial ingredient in the display side of videoconferencing.

    Bandwidth remains perhaps the speed of change champion in technology. Remember when Spring was waving dimes on their commercials? Not many 10 cent per minute domestic long distance ads running anymore. Some of the vendors are talking about massive improvements over existing (i.e. already buried) fiber optic cable over the next few years. Bandwidth in the backbone and (less quickly) in the last mile are another crucial part of telework.

    Finally, collaboration software is working better than expected. Google, Blogger, AOL IM, Wikipedia, del.icio.us and Facebook are all moving this area foreward at warp speed.

    So, better lenses in better casmeras with better displays connected to one another with much faster networks tied together with better collaborative software. At some time it becomes cheap and good to have a collaboration center in your home. With these tools, two to three days a week can be worked without physically being there. Don’t want to wait for home collaboration areas? Wait for the regional offices that are just a short drive from home and have all the equipment.

    The technology is rounding into form quickly. It’s time that companies start adopting this at scale.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    here’s what I find interesting.

    It seems like anytime a new technologies or a series of technological advances come along, the discussion sometimes proceeds as if industry will adopt it or not – in lockstep….

    … as opposed to businesses adopting it in innovative ways that give them a competitive advantage…

    .. so that’s were telecommuting comes in on my radar…

    businesses won’t adopt any/part/none of any enabling technology for telecommuting UNLESS it makes them a bigger/stronger/better company. Otherwise, they’re willingly diverting money to something that does not pay for itself, much less produce a positive ROI.

    Now.. I’m not saying government can’t influence this.. by putting a fee or fees on some activity that tips the scales but the problem with the government doing things like this is that the net effect of what they do.. sometimes is akin to someone waving a loaded shotgun around… their aim.. is not so hot… lots of collateral/unintended damage.

    There is another technology.. not as visible that I think has much more potential at collaboration and that is documents that can be accessed and edited (with ident time stamps) for a whole team – no matter where that team is physically.

    When I was working.. this was the holy grail for multiple govt teams working on the same software project.

    So.. you’d have the same set of documents from Requirements through design.. testing.. code..etc.. the whole enchilada not only available to everyone but editable by everyone – and automatic notification to other team members of those changes.

    unless of course, they were also lockable Configuration Management items.

    Visual for meetings is nice.. but being able to actually collaborate on the documents is monumental…

    and, as usual, our old friend GOOGLE has cracked that egg… and allowed folks to share the same document.. even have multiple editing …

    anyhow.. I’m sure this is pure blather to most folks who read here….. but I find it enormously sexy… weird huh?


  6. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    As a founding member of and past president of the Telework Advsiory Council, I appreciate your opening to this post.

    Telework is what many now do and more will do for some tasks and at some times.

    The real task is, however, using the capacity of new technology to help transition to settlement patterns that support all the aspects of life that cannot be put on a wire or bounced off a satilte.


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