Work Zone, Rest Area

Author: Eric Zorn

I, too, head south to begin my commute, just like my competitor Burt Constable. Then I head west, north, east, south again, west and south one last time to my office.

On a good day, the trip takes 20 seconds. If there are shoes in the hallway and clothes to haul up the stairs, it may take up to a minute for me to make it from the breakfast table to my desk in the spare bedroom.

Burt and I do the same job for competing Chicago-area newspapers — we write brilliant columns three times a week that leave readers breathless and hungering for more. But Burt, as he has told you, sits in his car up to three hours a day just to go back and forth to the desk at which he composes his elegant meditations, whereas I spend that three hours . . . well, before I get into revealing the secret life of the telecommuter, let me tell you how it started for me and why it works.

Some 17 years ago, in the early days of digital technology, my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, was in the computer dark ages. Our slow, unreliable mainframe units were agonizing to use, and stories in progress were known to disappear in a blink. I was writing feature stories then, and in the midst of drafting a big series of articles I decided to write them at home on my ultrareliable little desktop computer.

I realized quickly how little of my job actually required me to be around other people; indeed how much other people were a distraction to my tasks at hand. It was a lot easier to write and to think without a constant series of interruptions for office gossip and howdy-do’s.
I went back to the office at the conclusion of that project, but the seeds of my commuting discontent were planted. Several years later, when I started writing a column, I also started conspiring to make myself as scarce as possible in the newsroom. I’d research from home, commute in midday when the traffic was light to get in some face time, then shimmer off to go write in the privacy of my den. The modem and the fax machine made it all possible.

Slowly, I weaned my supervisors. They would go days, then weeks without seeing me. My columns would suddenly pop up on their screens, they’d read them, call me at home to ask their impertinent questions, and I’d be done for the day. Now it’s sometimes months between office visits for me. And when I read of my poor counterpart Burt sitting in traffic and breathing exhaust fumes for what would seem to amount to roughly 750 hours a year, I think that he and probably half the working world must be insane.

Many of those who could easily perform all their tasks off-site, now that the broadband Internet and other sophisticated communications technologies have decentralized most office work, nevertheless continue to clog the roads, pollute the air and miss meals with their families.

USA Today reported in summer 2001 that the telecommuting revolution — the one that was supposed to allow all of us to work from the den in our grubbies — has stagnated: Fewer than 5 percent of all wage and salary workers work at home, their satisfaction with their lives is lower than in-office workers and that, in the main, employers and employees aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea.
The article pointed out several drawbacks for employees:

1. Out of sight is out of mind when it comes to promotions, raises and other forms of job advancement.

2. The line between home and work grows so fuzzy that you seldom feel as though you’re away from the job.

3. The friendships and social alliances of the workplace are weakened.

All are true from my perspective. I won’t bore you with my office political struggles over the years, but I’m well aware that my position has been weakened at times by the fact that I’m not around and that I don’t have as many chums in the office as others do. I miss that, just as I miss the refreshing sensation of leaving work and arriving home.

But the article gave short shrift to the benefits, of which an instantaneous commute is but one. Others include

1. Lower costs for food, clothing and gas. I own fewer suits, fewer ties and fewer dress shirts than any office-based worker I know, and I eat meals and snacks away from home less often and my car stays in the garage most of every day.

2. Extended periods of pure silence. I can focus on one task, with no distractions, for several hours at a time with no chit-chat interruptions.

3. Less exposure to poisonous office politics, gossip and air. Newsrooms are like every other workplace in America, filled with attitude criminals, backbiters, clique leaders and rumormongers, not to mention people with colds. I don’t miss any of it and I haven’t taken a sick day for years.

4. Flex time galore. When people hear that I work at home they imagine that I knock off work for an hour here and an hour there to drive carpool or go for a midday run or fix a squeaky screen door. They suspect that I practice the piano for 15 minutes while I’m waiting for return calls and that some days I don’t shower until my initial burst of morning energy is spent.

And it’s all true. The secret is that I use my extra three hours — the hours Burt spends in his Ford Festiva (I don’t actually know, I’m just assuming) listening to foul-mouthed DJs making poo-poo jokes — here and there throughout the day. There’s nothing 9-to-5 about my job for me and I suspect for many other telecommuters who tell their supervisors that they put in normal hours, just like the folks at headquarters. I select my eight hours to work out of the 18 hours available between 6 a.m. and midnight. And I’m always home for dinner with the family and usually showered and dressed for the occasion.

Are the various trade-offs worth it? I’m of a mixed mind. Although I’ve been a more-or-less full-time telecommuter for a dozen years, I’m always tempted by the rituals and routines I remember from my years conventional commuting, the sense of belonging and joint purpose (or plight) that one gets in a real office. All the technology in the world can’t duplicate the pleasure and subtle advantages of actual human contact. I admit that, even as I ask those who fear or scoff at telecommuting to admit that inching along in traffic for hours every day is an obscene use of the short time you are allocated on Earth.

Overall, and contrary to what USA Today reported, the International Telework Association and Council, a trade group that promotes the work-at-home option, says a growing number of employees are making the trade and spending at least part of their work week toiling at home: “The most recent research shows that there were 23.6 million teleworkers in the United States as of October 2000 compared to 19.6 million a year earlier,” a 20 percent increase, the ITAC reported on its website (see links), in response to the gloomy article in USA Today. “Advances in information technology and telecommunications now enable work independent of location. The concept of a single assigned place to work is, for the majority of office workers, obsolete.”

I think of this sometimes on my commute at the end of the day. If I time it right, I can miss rush hour on the stairs as the kids scramble down to dinner.

Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.