With a rare exception here and there , 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.
 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.