written by: N Nayab•edited by: Jean Scheid•updated: 5/24/2011
More than 11 million people telecommute and the numbers increase by the day. Such a powerful medium has already redefined the nature of work. How is it changing society?
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A Return to the Putting Out System
The system of work before the industrial revolution of the mid-18th century was the putting out system. In this system, the merchant provided the artisan with raw materials. The artisan worked on the raw materials in his home, and supplied the finished product to the merchant-trader. The industrial revolution saw the institution of large machinery and the establishment of factories. The economies of scale of the resultant mass production soon put an end to the putting out system.
The factory system resulted in a great social upheaval. People flocked from their houses in the countryside and set up dwelling near the factories, leading to the establishment of many industrial towns. The machines set the pace of work, and factory owners expected humans to catch up. The new work ethic oriented people’s life and lifestyle around work, and looked down on idleness, frivolity, and anything that did not add value to their occupation. Soon a career became the primary and very often the sole objective of a person’s ambition. The present day concepts of orienting education for the sake of a career, commuting to office, relocating for the sake of work, the 9 to 5 of fixed work timings, the separation between work and life, and the overall corporate work culture traces its origins to the industrial revolution and its aftermath.
Will telecommuting change society?
Telecommuting is poised to change all this and return the society back to the days of the putting out system. Just as in the putting out system, the “merchant" employer provides work, the telecommuting worker uses the tools in her home, usually the computer to process work and send it back to the employer.
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Redesign of Work Relationships
The spread of telecommuting would see a dilution of the separation between work and life, and render the concept of fixed working hours, and weekends redundant. People can spend more time with their families, leading to lesser breakdown of martial relationships and ensure better familial ties, which can change society for the better.
In the realm of work structure, telecommuting treatments to end the concept of long-term employment in favor of contractual work and effect a paradigm shift from “pay for time" or “even pay for performance" to “pay for results." This would allow people to take up occupations based on their interests rather than orient their interests to what their employers want them to do.
The traditional employer-employee relationship centered on trade unions, collective bargaining and agreements are already on the wane, and telecommuting will sound the death knell to such systems, at least in its present form.
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Level Playing Field
Even without a return to the society based on the putting out system, telecommuting can herald a massive social upheaval.
Traditional office work faces inherent limitations of geography, and the human assets of an organization depends largely on the availability of a skilled workforce in the organization’s catchments area, and/or the ability of the organization to attract talent from afar. Telecommuting has the potential to “make geography history," empowering organizations to hire talent anywhere in the world, and for workers to work anywhere in the world. This may have far-reaching social implications, especially the way people select careers and employers structure job profiles.
All the anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislations notwithstanding, the present office environment favors the active male by default. The elderly, the disabled, women, socially or culturally disadvantaged people, and other marginalized people, all face obstacles to commute and work in a traditional office on a daily basis. The benefits of telecommuting extends to ensuring a level playing field for all sections of the society. While the idealistic notion of “success solely on merit" remains a far-fetched dream in most of the corporate world today, telecommuting has the power to make this concept a reality and a norm.
As telecommuters stop making their daily commute to work, the pressure on urban infrastructures, especially roads and public transportation will decrease significantly. This directly translates to lower energy costs, lesser fossil fuel depletion, and less pollution. The demand for office space also decreases considerably. IBM alone, for instance has already saved about $75 million in annual real estate expenses.
All these indirectly lead to structural changes in the society. The major changes could be less spending on road and transportation infrastructures, a bust of the commercial realty sector, decline of jobs in oil, automobile, and civil engineering sectors, and conversely more jobs for communication and hardware engineers. The service economy centered on the office, such as cleaning services, stationery supplies, and the like would become obsolete. New and innovative services to serve the telecommuting employees would rise.
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So, will telecommuting change society?
While the possibilities remain endless, the ability of telecommuting to affect a paradigm shift in the concept of work just as the industrial revolution did depends on resolution of some key challenges.
The primary challenge is psychological, especially for the male. Man is accustomed to disassociating himself from home, with the society considering males who spend too much time at home rather than conquering the outside world as "suspect" or "ridiculous." A secondary challenge is the willingness of the society to embrace change rather than foster regulations to resist the changes brought about by telecommuting, and the ability of people to adapt to telecommuting successfully without succumbing to adverse consequences such as working longer or more unsocial hours, or suffering owing to reduced face-to-face interactions with other employees.
Finally, these hypothesis are based on the assumption of seamless and reliable connectivity across the world.
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Egan, Terry, and Kurland, Nancy. “Telecommuting… Out of Sight, Out of Mind?" http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/telecommuting-out-of-sight/. Retrieved February 27, 2011.
Aitken, Stuart, C., and Carroll, Matt. "Man's Place in the Home: Telecommuting, Identity and Urban Space". http://www.ncgia.ucsb.edu/conf/BALTIMORE/authors/aitken/paper.html. Retrieved February 27, 2011.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica. “History of Europe." http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/195896/history-of-Europe/58406/Social-upheaval. Retrieved February 27, 2011.