A Big Step Back For Telecommuting

As someone who no longer shows up at an office to work, and in fact lives nearly 3,000 miles from headquarters, I’ve had no particularly compelling reason to doubt the longstanding predictions that information technology would eventually disassociate work from physical location, at least for “knowledge sector” occupations.

Yes, it’s been painfully evident to me that my own little corner of the “knowledge” universe has been undergoing a counter-trend, as think tanks once committed to far-flung scholar networks seem to be increasingly making D.C. residence a condition of employment, while newspapers and magazines prefer in-house staff to outsiders (the main reason I no longer write a column or two a week for the cash-flush and now staff-heavy New Republic). But I kinda figured that was mainly the result of a total buyer’s market for writing talent: why not require that the scribbler’s working right there in the harness if there’s an bottomless and infinitely replaceable supply of scribblers?

Yet the news from Yahoo, as discussed at CNN by business professor Rayman Fission, makes me wonder if the telecommuting revolution has simply been oversold:

When Yahoo’s relatively new CEO Marissa Mayer decreed that workers would be required to show up at the office rather than work remotely, the immediate backlash from outsiders was mostly on the side of the angry Yahoo employees who were losing the comfort and convenience of telecommuting. Inside the company, reactions were mixed.

It struck a deep chord, contrary as it was to the techno-utopian impulse that has helped define Silicon Valley: the idea that someday soon we’ll all be working in coffee shops or at kitchen tables, with broadband connections replacing in-person interactions.

Fisman goes on to argue that execs like Mayer have begun to conclude that personal interaction in the office is as essential to the innovation Yahoo treasures as the personal flexibility and–yes–freedom associated with telecommuting. As for morale, he suggests whatever buzzkill is experienced by former telecommuters will be compensated by raised spirits among Yahoo employees who have never left the cubicle, but who feel put-upon and maybe even lonely. It’s unclear how many people will be left without jobs by the new policy.

The whole article depressed me, though I took some cheer in the suggestion that this lurch back towards the industrial age may last only until such time as the company’s lagging productivity is turned around (reminding me of the old Marine slogan: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”).

Perhaps we’ll eventually drift back to time-clocks and factory whistles even for people who manufacture nothing but words. Too bad unions won’t come back, too. But in the mean-time, I’m grateful to WaMo for letting me avoid adding to the many years of my life that I’ll never get back spent sitting in meetings, and meetings about meetings.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.