Home is Where the Work Is

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With a rare exception here and there [1], there was nothing I liked more as a systems integrator than working from home. No commute, no dressing up, and no daily shave. Particularly when I lived in and worked out of New York City, those three activities were the bane of my existence. Unsurprisingly, the attitude of my managers towards this preference varied; some looked on it with a form of indulgence, others were intensely and violently opposed to it conceptually.

All I can say now is, my how things have changed since those days. Some of it’s infrastructure improvements (broadband, primarily), and some of its the crushing weight of corporate real estate, but whatever the causes, more and more organizations are allowing if not mandating work from home. As near as I can determine, there’s not one guiding principle leading businesses to make this decision; for some it’s primarily economic, for others it’s employee satisfaction, for still others it’s a mix of both. And although we in the technology business have been characterized as outliers here, I’m not sure that’s true; WBZ (AM radio in Boston) had a brief segment a few weeks ago on call center employees working out of their homes. So while I don’t think there’s much hope for assembly line folks manufacturing cars from the comfort of their couches, I do think it’s a mistake to regard the trend towards work-from-home programs as an anomaly unique to the tech industry. With the available communication technologies and infrastructure – not to mention mechanisms for judging productivity – many industries may find that work-from-home is an option for certain user populations.

That being the case, I think it’s extremely instructive to look at the firms that have a structured program in this regard, and some track record for what works and what doesn’t. Amongst the firms we deal with, Sun is probably the most aggressive on this front with its iWork program (that McNealy claims squeezes and extra 3.3 hours per week out of their employees). That’s why I’ve been following Marion Vermazen‘s (IT Director for iWork) blog with such interest. Yesterday’s post is an excellent and balanced look at different perspectives and considerations for work at home situations.

There are many angles that can and have been explored regarding work from home: the enabling technologies, the psychological impact of personal isolation, management techniques for distributed teams, or the follow-the-sun availability.

But what I’m actually most interested is a bit more arcane: what impact might widespread mobile workers have on the current population distribution patterns. Meaning, is there the possibility for a slight reversal of the the Industrial Revolution pattern of “move to the city?” I’m not sure, myself. Many live in or near the city for the urban benefits – entertainment and otherwise. But would a certain segment of the population – given the option to live wherever they want – do things differently? I think so. All in all, I think the effects will be interesting to watch over the next several years, as a slight reduction in urban population density could have a profound, but positive, effect on both urban and rural cities and towns.

At any rate, I’m happy to live in an era and be in a profession where my geographic location doesn’t dictate my employment options, and I’ll be exploiting that shortly. More on that tomorrow.

Update: Via Chris DiBona, came across this interesting counterpoint to what I’m talking about, in which towns in Kansas and North Dakota are going to great lengths to recruit new residents. Chris explains the difficulty these towns have in such activity from a cultural perspective rather than infrastructure, which makes some sense although I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive.

[1] For instance, being on call and having to dial in to a 3270 emulator over a 28.8 dialup at three in the morning for a stopped batch job.


  1. I think you're onto something interesting with that "move to city" things. I live 5 minutes, with no traffic either way, from my work. I'd have to say that I rate that as one of the top 5-10 great things about my quality of life (I hate sitting in traffic).

    Point being, I'm extreamly ristent to moving because I charish that 5 minute commute.

    If I worked from home instead, though, it'd open a whole range of places for me to move. Cheaper hours with more space ;>

  2. the real question to me is, where would you live if you didn't have to worry about the office?

  3. Away, I would live, … Away. Away from any big city, away from the mess, away from the thousands that I cross every day. I would buy a small house with a big backyard, with lots of space for my dog to run and for children to actually breath some air. Sounds like a dream, …

  4. Stephen,
    I just talked about your posting in my blog but I can't seem to get trackback to work.
    Here is my manual trackback.

  5. thx for the trackback after a fashion, Marion. and i liked the pushback, it was very good.

    as for our trackbacks, we're getting buried with trackback spam so i had to shut it down for the time being. will open up later if i can.

  6. Jamie: make it happen – sounds awesome. just gotta work towards it.

  7. Enjoyed the post. I got to the post via a cNet article.

    Jamie, it's a very real opportunity and well worth it….

    I'm a CRM consultant and basically work from home when not on the road (and I haven't had to travel in nearly 9 months:-). Because of the advantages of working from home, we're building a larger house on a larger lot a good deal further out of town. I figured I could pay the commute price on the few occasions that I did have to go to the airport or the office. I must say that I truly enjoy being able to eat breakfast and dinner with my family and still be a productive employee. As a team, we heavily leverage IM, email, and cell phones and I'm currently looking into a VOIP phone that will be with me wherever I go (like the coffee shop).

  8. Thoughtful thinking, Stephen! I wonder about the premise of your chief interest here, though: Didn't the trend toward city-centrism already reverse itself a long time ago? The aggressive consolidation of "big box" stores out on the interstate; the swelling of employment numbers in service jobs rather than manufacturing and, before that, agriculture; and the rush toward gated subdivisions all leeched the downtowns–and they began 40 years ago or more.

    I work at home full time now, and moved from the SF Bay Area to somewhat-rural Wilmington, NC, because of it. I simply love working at home. Though like everyone I have my throwaway days, my surfs-up days, days when I feel disconnected or somehow behind on vital watercooler information, I think I'm *way* more productive on balance than I was in the office–a much better bargain for IBM, and not just because they don't have to rent my cube.

    It's obviously a relationship that requires some trust–and I don't think I would have been able to kick things off like this (I worked in an office with a close team for some time before we moved).


  9. Jon: that's what I'm talking about. i think everyone's got a threshold for how much travel they're comfortable with, whether that's due to personal feelings, family obligations, or whatever. i got out of the SI business, for example, because i simply couldn't live on the road, every day, every week any more. i still travel quite a bit, but it's more irregular and more 2 day type trips – which is under my threshold. if you can find the type of deal that you've got, where you haven't travelled in 9 months, that's the ideal. what's really great though is that it sounds like you appreciate what you've got, which is rare 😉

    Ian: the short answer to you question is yes, the decentralization is not quite as black and white as i made it out to be, hence the existence of suburbs. i do think, however, that there is still a certain class of worker that's tied to a city by commute if not by residence. that could change, and what i'm interested in is what happens if that invisible tie is removed. maybe i should have included suburbs in my definition of city, and that'd make it clearer.

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