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Some Notes on the Experience of Being a Teleworker

Thomas Erickson




This is another essay on my experience as a teleworker at Apple Computer from fall of '93 through spring of '97 (also see Work and Spirit, and On the Experience of Remote Meetings). This was written for a panel on telework in which we addressed three questions: what are the consequence of working from one's home; what are the consequences of extended separation from one's colleagues; and what do you see as the future of telework?


The consequences of working from my home

One of the most prominent features of my life as a teleworker is the rhythmic nature of my work. I travel to Cupertino and have a week of intense social interaction -- both planned and spontaneous. This interaction results in a bunch of informal agreements: to read someone's paper, critique a prototype, develop an idea that came up in discussion, or just talk more over the phone. When I return to Minneapolis I shift into focused work mode, in which I have time to read, reflect, write, and carry out other tasks. The informal agreements made during my social week now partially structure my remote time. I don't mean to imply that remote work is calm and uninterrupted --far from it. Even at a distance I am still interrupted by phone or email, I still experience radically rearranged priorities, and I still participate in the occasional, bureaucratically induced 'fire drill' -- however, the degree of interruption is considerably less than when I am on site. Though it's not all-or-none, there is a real rhythm to my activity that I find extremely energizing and productive. This was not something I had anticipated before starting telework.

Tied in with this work rhythm -- both as a cause and consequence -- is the fact that whatever location I'm at inhibits some activities and facilitates others. And these inhibitions and facilitations are just what you'd expect: spontaneous conversations with colleagues are easier on site; time to write and think is easier to find at home or on the plane. And, naturally, the nature of many of my activities shifts to accommodate my work rhythm.

Probably the chief consequence of working from my home is the softening of the boundaries between work and home life. For years pundits have predicted the merging of work and leisure, home and office. But before I became a teleowrker, when I worked full time at Apple in Cupertino, it felt to me like work was infiltrating leisure, but not the opposite. Now it feels balanced. A big part of this is that, for the first time in my adult life, I live and work in the same place. I can shovel snow while a large file downloads, or go upstairs and work at midnight if I have insomnia. For me this is very pleasant; however I can imagine situations -- when work or home life is not going well -- in which this could be a considerable drawback.

Overall, I find that the rhythmic nature of my work life, the softer boundaries between work and home, and the ability to live and work in the same place, all conspire to increase my quality of life.

The consequences of extended physical separation from colleagues

I'll begin with a revealing story. I was on a speaker phone in a special meeting with about two dozen colleagues. Because it was such a large meeting, everybody got to say a little, but nobody got all their issues on the table. After two hours the meeting came to its scheduled end. Usually, at this point, I jump in and say thanks for calling and everyone says good bye and I hang up. Or the leader of the meeting says good-bye. But in this instance, I missed my chance to jump in, the leader of the meeting forgot about me, and the meeting ended with me still "there" on the speaker phone.

What happened then was quite interesting. When the meeting "ended", everyone burst into conversation. After all, the participants had been building up things to say for two hours. Now, my speaker phone was very sophisticated, with directional microphones that tried to home in on the person speaking, and it was going crazy trying to focus on a conversation. I was getting a snatch of conversation from here, and a snatch from there -- it was sort of like having an out of the body experience at a cocktail party. Interestingly enough, because I knew all the people and issues, I could actually guess at a lot of what was going on: people were making meetings, clarifying positions, apologizing, etc. It was a very interesting way to get a cross section of my work community. It struck me that this "after-meeting" part of the meeting was incredibly productive--a lot of "conversation potential" had been built up during the meeting, and only now was it being realized. And I was also struck, with considerable dismay, by the fact that I almost always miss this part of meetings.

This story illustrates a basic problem with working remotely: technology doesn't capture the periphery well. Meetings don't really have sharp temporal edges (there's a "pre-meeting" part of the meeting too), but we often use technology as though they do. Similarly, space doesn't have edges either--except when you're using video technology.

Another problem illustrated in the story is loss of visibility and spontaneity. In the meeting, I became invisible locally. Not only was I not literally visible, but I was not a prominent participant in the conversation because it was difficult to signal for a turn, or to verbally slip into a tiny gap in the rapid, unstructured give and take that characterizes large group conversations. My options were to either be silent, or to vocally interrupt the conversation -- to speak until others fall silent, since using visual channels to negotiate the acceptability of an interruption is not possible. The issue of visibility also occurs at a more macroscopic level: losing long term organizational visibility is also a danger. I am often not visibly present when my group's work is presented to management, other groups, or outside visitors. Even if I am present on the phone I am still less able to participate in the spontaneous banter, and I still often miss the pre- and after-meeting interactions. While technology supports intentional direct interactions, it is much weaker at supporting spontaneous interactions -- in part, because it doesn't capture the periphery where spontaneous interactions often occur.

At the moment, the solutions to these sorts of problems are, for me, primarily in the social realm: I get support from my colleagues, who, for example, may call me back if the after-meeting conversation heats up. Also, although spontaneous interactions are rarer for me, they're more intense & energizing because of that rarity. So, for example, on my week at Apple, I have *lots* of hallway conversations, because both I and others know it's a rare opportunity. In fact, I engage in 'planned spontaneity' -- I wander the hallways on purpose so I can bump into people. I also have a set of customs -- people I regularly breakfast with, for instance -- which result in maintaining my social network. And, at home in Minneapolis, I have a local network of colleagues with whom to gossip, toss ideas around, and banter; they serve as a substitute for that aspect of workplace life.

The Future of Telework

I think we're likely to see an increase in telework in the future. An organization that needs less physical office space has an economic advantage. The cost of telephone and network infrastructure for my remote office, and of the monthly week-long trips to California, is considerably less than the cost of providing a physical office in Cupertino. At the same time, the number of professionals who are experiencing some form of the "two body problem," shows no sign of decreasing. An organization that can readily accomodate telework has a wider pool of talent to draw from, another advantage in a time and industry where highly specialized and skilled employees play a vital role. And, for me at least, the little benefits like living with my wife, actually inhabiting a neighborhood, and having more focused work time, vastly outweigh the inconveniences.

I began teleworking with low expectations, in part based on previous experience as a teleporter (Victoria Bellotti's term for a person who works at home one day or so a week). But my experience as a telepath (a person who is remote for extensive periods of time (VB)) has been very different, in part because the permanency of the telework arrangement required my colleagues and I to shift our work practices. These shifts, of course, had their costs, but they also came with benefits. The principle moral I take away from my telework experience is that the social is more important than the technical. Telework practice has to be learned by the participants (both local and remote), and supported by the organization. This is nothing new: people and organizations have had to learn how to incorporate everything from telephones to copiers into their work practices, and I see nothing unusually daunting about telework.

Finally, it's interesting to speculate about new tele-organizational forms. I imagine that organizational activity might take on a more rhythmic character: suppose there were lots of remote workers who would periodically converge for a period of intense socialization, exchange, and synthesis. This is not unlike the way CHI, and other professional associations, work: it's evident how the annual rhythms of such associations catalyze various professional activities, and it seems likely to me that the quicker rhythms of tele-organizations might produce benefits similar to those that I've described in my case. I expect that there are a lot of apropos cultural models and practices -- from nomadic or migratory cultures, for instance -- that might be adopted by telework organizations.

If this shift towards telework came about, it's also interesting to speculate about the coevolution of civic life driven by people living and working in the same neighborhood. It's easy to construct visions -- taking our cue from Jane Jacobs -- of a neighborhood renaissance driven by full time occupancy of what were once bedroom communities. I'm not meaning to claim that telework is a panacea of any sort. Such a scenario would doubtless come with its own associated set of costs, but in my experience the benefits have outweighed the costs.

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